I am an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University. My work focuses on exploring the sources, mechanisms, and consequences of cultural differences in a variety of psychological processes.
Broadly speaking I am interested in how culture effects the way we view the self, how we experience emotions, and how we perceive and reason about the social and non-social worlds. I am also interested in the causes (both proximal and distal) of within-culture and between-culture variations in these processes.
Within-culture variations in Social Orientation and Cognitive Habits: In my research, I study variation in these dimensions by social class within the US and other countries. I have conducted work documenting social class differences in neural responses as well as differences in more traditional implicit and explicit social psychological measures. In addition, I study regional variation within the US in tendencies like conformity that may be linked to voluntary settlement. I am also interested in how factors like pathogen prevalence and other features of the socio-ecological environment might underlie regional variations in a broad variety of psychological tendencies and behaviors.
Cultural Neuroscience: I am pursuing research using neuroscience techniques to explore how culture influences the brain and vice-versa. I have conducted research using fMRI and EEG and ERPs to explore the effects of culture (including both national culture and social class) on social cognitive processes including trait inference and empathy, and I have explored how manipulating views of the self (a key dimension of cultural difference) affects empathy and vicarious reward. Currently I am working on a program of research exploring how social class affects neural responses linked to empathy and mirroring. I am also using neuroscience to study the process of acculturation.
Cultural Change: A number of studies have documented increases in variables conceptually linked to individualism in the US. To some extent there have been similar developments in other cultures as well. However, it remains unclear which factors may cause cultures to shift in this direction. I am currently working on a project exploring the role various social, demographic, and ecological factors in shaping cultural change.
Some of my other research interests include wise reasoning and the effect of different types of uncertainty on achievement-related behavior.
2016 & in press
Varnum, M. E. W. (in press). The emerging (social) neuroscience of SES. Social and Personality Psychology Compass.
Varnum, M. E. W., & Hampton, R. S. (in press). Culture and self-other overlap in neural circuits. In N. Gonzales,
E. Tezler, & J. Causadias (Eds.), Handbook of Culture and Biology. New York, NY: Wiley. Forthcoming.
Santos, H. C., Grossmann, I., & Varnum, M. E. W. (in press). Culture, cognition, and cultural change in social class.
In W. H. Berkhaus, & G. Ignatow (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Sociology. Oxford, UK:
The Oxford University Press.
Varnum, M. E. W., Blais, C., & Brewer, G. A. (2016). Social class affects Mu-suppression during action observation.
Social Neuroscience, 11, 449-454.
Cohen, A. B., & Varnum, M. E. W. (2016). Beyond east vs. west: Social class, region, and religion as forms of culture.
Current Opinion in Psychology, 8, 5-9.
Sevincer, A. T., Kitayama, S., & Varnum, M. E. W. (2015). Cosmopolitan cities: The frontier in the 21st century. Frontiers
in Psychology, 6, 1459. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01459
Varnum, M. E. W., Blais, C., Hampton, R. S., & Brewer, G. A. (2015). Social class affects neural empathic responses.
Culture and Brain, 3, 122-130.
Varnum, M. E. W. (2015). Higher in status, (even) better-than-average. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 496.
Grossmann, I., & Varnum, M. E. W. (2015). Social structure, infectious diseases, disasters, secularism, and cultural
change in America. Psychological Science, 26, 311-324.
Varnum, M. E. W., Shi, Z., Chen, A., Qiu, J., & Han, S. (2014). When "your" reward is the same as "my" reward:
Jiang, C., Varnum, M. E. W., Hou, Y., & Han, S. (2014). Distinct effects of self-construal priming on empathic neural
responses in Chinese and Westerners. Social Neuroscience, 9, 130-139.
Smith, G. E., James , L. E., Varnum, M. E. W., & Oyserman, D. (2014). Give up or get going? Productive uncertainty
in uncertain times. Self and Identity, 13, 681-700.
Varnum, M. E. W. (2014). Sources of regional variation in social capital in the United States. Evolutionary Behavioral
Sciences, 8, 77-85.
Kitayama, S., Varnum, M. E. W., & Sevincer, A. T. (2014). The frontier: Voluntary settlement and cultural change.
(pp 93-127). Washington, DC: APA.
Grossmann, I., Na, J., Varnum, M. E. W., Kitayama, S., & Nisbett, R. E. (2013). A route to well-being: Intelligence vs.
Varnum, M. E. W. (2013). What are lay theories of social class? PLOS ONE, 8, e70589. doi: 109371/journal.pone.0070589.
Varnum, M. E. W. (2013). Frontiers, germs, and non-conformist voting. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 44, 832-837.
Han S., Northoff, G., Vogeley, K., Wexler, B. E., Kitayama, S., & Varnum, M. E. W. (2013). A cultural neuroscience
approach to the biosocial nature of the human brain. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 335-359.
Grossmann, I., Karasawa, M., Izumi, S., Na, J., Varnum, M. E. W., Kitayama, S., & Nisbett, R. E. (2012). Aging and wisdom:
Culture matters. Psychological Science, 23, 1059-1066.
Varnum, M. E. W., Na, J., Murata, A., & Kitayama, S. (2012). Social class differences in N400 indicate differences in
spontaneous trait inference. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 518-526.
Varnum, M. E. W. (2012). Conformity effect sizes are smaller on the frontier. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 12, 345-350.
Varnum, M. E. W., & Kitayama, S. (2011). What's in a name? Popular names are less common on frontiers.
Psychological Science, 22, 176-183.
Grossmann, I., & Varnum, M. E. W. (2011). Social class, culture, and cognition. Social Psychological and Personality Science,
Grossmann, I., Na, J., Varnum, M. E. W., Park, D. C., Kitayama, S., & Nisbett, R. E. (2010). Reasoning about social conflicts
improves into old age. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 107, 7246-7250.
Na, J., Grossmann, I., Varnum, M. E. W., Kitayama, S., Gonzalez, R., & Nisbett, R. E. (2010). Cultural differences are not
always reducible to individual differences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 107, 6192-6197.
Varnum, M. E. W., Grossmann, I., Kitayama, S., & Nisbett, R. E. (2010). The origin of cultural differences in cognition:
The social orientation hypothesis. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 9-13.
2008 & 2007
Varnum, M. E. W., Grossmann, I., Katunar, D., Nisbett, R. E., & Kitayama, S. (2008). Holism in a European cultural context:
Differences in cognitive style between Central and East Europeans and Westerners. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 8,
Varnum, M. E. W. (2008). Rapid adaptation to social change in Central Europe: Changes in locus of control, attribution,
subjective well-being, self-direction, and trust. Slovak Sociological Review, 3, 215-235.
Varnum, M. E. W. (2008). The transition from communism and shifts toward independent values and theory of agency in
post-communist Central European societies. In K. A. Fanti (Ed.), Psychological Science: Research, Theory, and Future
Directions (pp. 335-347). Athens, Greece: ATINER.
Varnum, M. E. W., & Bushman, B. (2007). Reference group effect. In R.F. Baumeister, & K.D. Vohs (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Social
Psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Psychological Science Cultural Change Article:
Harper's Findings. April, 2015.
NeuroImage Self-Construal and Vicarious Reward Article:
JEP:G Wisdom and Well-Being Article:
Psychological Science Wisdom and Culture Article:
JEP:G Social Class ERP Article:
Psychological Science Baby Names Article:
http://www.livescience.com/12934-popular-baby-names-frontier-states.html (livescience.com interview)
http://www.montrealgazette.com/life/Frontier+spirit+lives+parents+choice+baby+names/4087137/story.html (Postmedia interview)
PNAS Wisdom Article:
CDPS Social Orientation Hypothesis Article:
Other Media Coverage:
I am teaching Cultural Psychology (PSY 498) in the spring term. This course is a great opportunity for students interested in learning more about how culture affects the way we think, feel, and behave. The course will provide a broad introduction to cultural psychology as well as cover cutting edge research using new techniques (including genetics and neuroimaging) in the study of culture.
PSY 394 Introduction to Cultural Psychology
PSY 591 Culture and Neuroscience