Professor Quentin Douglas Atkinson


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Before coming to the University of Auckland in 2010 Quentin was a research fellow in the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Wolfson College. He has also held research positions in the School for the Study of Religion at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and with Professor Mark Pagel in the Zoology Department at the University of Reading, UK. Quentin teaches stage III and postgraduate courses on Evolutionary Psychology and in 2011 he started a new postgraduate course with Dr Niki Harré on Sustainability and Psychology. He is Associate Editor for Evolution and Human Behavior, a guest editor for PNAS, and on the editorial board of Diachronica. In 2012 he was awarded a 5-year, Royal Society of New Zealand, Rutherford Discovery Fellowship.

Research | Current

Quentin’s research uses lab and field experiments, computer modelling and evolutionary theory to shed light on the evolution of language, culture and cognition. His work answers questions including the origins of linguistic diversity, the function of religion, the psychology of climate change, how evolved cognitive biases shape our social behaviour and why political systems vary the way they do around the globe. Quentin's research is inherently interdisciplinary, drawing on psychology, evolutionary biology, linguistics, anthropology and behavioural economics, has been published in top interdisciplinary journals, Nature and Science, and regularly features in international media outlets including the BBC, New Scientist, the NY Times, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. Quentin is also a keen environmentalist and working to promote understanding and action around climate change. He published an edited volume with Dr Niki Harré on how New Zealanders can tackle climate change and in 2019 co-founded the climate action group Claxon.

Some Media Coverage

NZ Herald - What I learned in my no-fly year

Times, UK – Power, not poverty, spreads Christianity study finds.

Science Daily - Intensification of agriculture and social hierarchies evolve together.

The Guardian - Most Australian Indigenous languages came from just one place.

New York Times - Why Some Societies Practiced Ritual Human Sacrifice.

The Washington Post – Fear of a vengeful God may explain humanity’s global expansion.

Science - Monogamy May Have Evolved to Prevent Infanticide.

The Washington Post - Linguists identify 15,000-year-old ‘ultraconserved words’.

Nature NEWS - Genes Mix faster than Stories.

New Scientist - Genes Mix Across Borders More Easily Than Folktales.

The New York Times - Family Tree of Languages Has Roots in Anatolia, Biologists Say.

Nature - A Turkish origin for Indo-European languages.

Washington Post - Researchers identify present day Turkey as origin of Indo-European languages.

BBC - English language ‘originated in Turkey’.

Over 300 more articles on the 2012 Indo-European paper here.

The Daily Telegraph - Switch to daylight made us sociable.

Nature - Evolutionary biology: The path to sociality.

The New York Times - Phonetic Clues Hint Language is Africa-Born.

The Wall Street Journal - The Mother of All Languages.

The Economist – The evolution of language: two origin stories.

Nature - Language: The language barrier.

The Telegraph - Language development mirrors species evolution.

Nature - An invisible hand.

Nature Video podcast (2007) -

The New York Times - A biological dig for the roots of language.


Teaching | Current

In 2022 I will teach a special topic in Behavioural Insights. This course outlines how cognitive biases and errors cause us to behave in irrational ways, explores how nudging and debiasing can mitigate these effects and introduces students to methods to run behavioural insight analyses in real-world settings

I also run, with Associate Professor Alex Taylor, the University of Auckland Behavioural Insights Exchange (UoABIX). This allows Masters thesis students to work with external organisations across the private and public sector to develop a real-world behavioural science project. Students will gain industry-relevant skills by applying knowledge of our cognitive biases and errors in decision-making to help address the challenges faced by our external partners. UoABIX creates the opportunity for knowledge exchange between business and academia, bringing state-of-the-art scientific knowledge, methodology and data analysis tools to industry-relevant questions and databases. UoABIX will pilot in 2022 with industry partners including PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Auckland Council and Behavioural Science Aotearoa at the Ministry of Justice.

I teach Psych 317 Evolution, Behaviour and Cognition. How can evolution help us understand what it is to be human? How did human intelligence evolve? Why did human behaviours such as religion and cultural practices evolve? Do other animals have language, tool use, culture and consciousness? This course addresses these questions and the methods that can be used to answer them. Specific areas that will be discussed include the evolution of language, technical intelligence, social learning, culture, cooperation, religion, and consciousness. The course will emphasize the importance of a comparative, evolutionary approach to the study of behaviour and cognition.

I also teach Psych 725 Evolution and Human Behaviour.  This course looks at the psychology of humans from an evolutionary perspective. Specific topics include the evolution of religion, mental time travel, and cognitive nudges, biases and heuristics.

Postgraduate supervision

Those interested in Masters or PhD level research positions in the Language, Culture and Cognition Lab should email me with a CV, academic transcript and writing sample. Potential research projects include: -

  1. applying behavioural insights about human cognitive biases to real world problems
  2. lab and online experiments investigating the psychological foundations of politics and religion
  3. experimental and ethnographic fieldwork in Vanuatu and other Pacific Islands examining prosociality, resource management and their relation to politics and religion
  4. experimental work on the evolutionary foundations of pro-environmental behaviour
  5. tracking the spread of beliefs and behaviours through online and face-to-face social networks
  6. using computational models to infer ancestral relationships between the world’s languages and understand how languages evolve
  7. online experiments investigating the drivers of human prosociality


2017 Vice Chancellor’s Excellence Award in Environmental Sustainability, University of Auckland
2016 Vice Chancellor’s Research Excellence Award, University of Auckland
2012-2018 Rutherford Discovery Fellow, Royal Society, New Zealand
2007-2010 Research Fellow, Wolfson College, University of Oxford
2006 Best Doctoral Thesis Award, University of Auckland, New Zealand
2003-2006 Bright Futures Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarship, New Zealand,
2004/2005 New Zealand Young Scientist of the Year (People and Society)
2002 Science Faculty Senior Scholarship, University of Auckland
2002 Senior Scholar in Psychology, University of Auckland
2002 Senior Prize in Philosophy, University of Auckland

Areas of expertise

cultural evolution, language variation and change, psychology of religion, political psychology, climate change, evolution of human sociality, computational biology

Committees/Professional groups/Services

Member of Cultural Evolution Society

Member of Human Behavior and Evolution Society

Editorial Board, Diachronica

Editorial Board, Religion, Brain and Behavior

Selected publications and creative works (Research Outputs)

As of 29 October 2020 there will be no automatic updating of 'selected publications and creative works' from Research Outputs. Please continue to keep your Research Outputs profile up to date.
  • Claessens, S., Fischer, K., Chaudhuri, A., Sibley, C. G., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2020). The dual evolutionary foundations of political ideology. Nature human behaviour, 4 (4), 336-345. 10.1038/s41562-020-0850-9
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Chris Sibley, Ananish Chaudhuri
  • Ruck, D. J., Matthews, L. J., Kyritsis, T., Atkinson, Q. D., & Bentley, R. A. (2020). The cultural foundations of modern democracies. Nature human behaviour, 4 (3), 265-269. 10.1038/s41562-019-0769-1
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Thanos Kyritsis
  • Vardy, T., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2019). Property Damage and Exposure to Other People in Distress Differentially Predict Prosocial Behavior After a Natural Disaster. Psychological science, 30 (4), 563-575. 10.1177/0956797619826972
  • Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Bulbulia, J., Gray, R. D., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2018). Christianity spread faster in small, politically structured societies. Nature human behaviour, 2 (8), 559-564. 10.1038/s41562-018-0379-3
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Joseph Bulbulia, Russell Gray
  • Sookias, R. B., Passmore, S., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2018). Deep cultural ancestry and human development indicators across nation states. Royal Society open science, 5 (4)10.1098/rsos.171411
  • Sheehan, O., Watts, J., Gray, R. D., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2018). Coevolution of landesque capital intensive agriculture and sociopolitical hierarchy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115 (14), 3628-3633. 10.1073/pnas.1714558115
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Russell Gray
  • Bouckaert, R. R., Bowern, C., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2018). The origin and expansion of Pama-Nyungan languages across Australia. Nature ecology & evolution, 2 (4), 741-749. 10.1038/s41559-018-0489-3
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Remco Bouckaert
  • Maurits, L., Forkel, R., Kaiping, G. A., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2017). BEASTling: A software tool for linguistic phylogenetics using BEAST 2. PloS one, 12 (8)10.1371/journal.pone.0180908


Contact details

Primary office location

SCIENCE CENTRE 302 - Bldg 302
Level 3, Room 361
New Zealand

Web links