Information for prospective PhD students:

Thank you for your interest in joining the lab! I am planning to take on a new advisee for Fall 2022. Deadline to apply is January 5th, 2022. Information can be found here https://rady.ucsd.edu/programs/phd/admissions/

Below is some hopefully useful information as you decide whether the lab would be a good fit for your interests.


About the Morality and Culture Lab at Rady:

At present, research in our lab falls into two core themes-

A) Moralistic aggression- Many psychological approaches assume that when people hurt or even kill each other it must be because something has broken down in the moral psychology of the perpetrator. Perhaps the perpetrator failed to feel the right emotions (e.g. psychopathy), or to control the emotions they did feel (a lack of self-control), or maybe the perpetrator didn't empathize with their victims as fellow human beings (dehumanization). In contrast, our research argues that much violence occurs because of the activation of our moral psychology. People hurt and kill because they feel they are justified, obligated, and virtuous in doing so.

Many of our ongoing projects ask how the relationships between violence and psychological processes shift once we reconceptualize aggression as emerging from the presence of morality rather than its absence. So for example, we've found that moralistic aggressors may actually humanize their victims (link), exert more self-control (link), and respond irrationally to material incentives (link). Current projects focus on the role of moralistic aggression in cooperation, victims' experiences, social bonding, and the search for a meaningful life.

B) Moral diversity across individuals, cultures, and organizations- That many perpetrators harm others because they feel it is morally good to do so raises the question of where moral values come from. How is it that some people or social groups find a particular action to be righteous and worthy of praise, while others find the same action to be wrong and abhorrent? One possibility is that its just a mistake- everyone has similar values, but errors in reasoning or available information cause them to disagree. If everyone had the same information, they would agree on what is morally right. However, our research argues that much moral disagreement is genuine - people have competing, incommensurable moral values that lead to disagreement even when everyone agrees on the facts at hand. Further, we argue that these values are grounded in patterns of social relations that vary across cultures and social contexts (link). Current projects focus on the cultural evolution of competing patterns of social relations that have downstream consequences on moral beliefs and values.

Moving forward: Much of our research will shift from an emphasis on individuals toward an emphasis on institutions (organizational ethics), as well as a stronger focus on exploring intersectionality in moral psychology.


What I look for in potential advisees:

1) Have interests in morality, culture, violence, and their evolution. Students can expect to read very widely, drawing on scholarship across the full breadth of social sciences from cognitive science to cultural anthropology

2) Have interest in learning and using multiple, mixed methods (e.g., interviewing, in-lab and online experiments; dyadic/group interaction studies, psychophysiological measurements; experience sampling methods, archival analyses, and more). Stats training, computational skills, etc are all a plus but not required

3) Eagerness to engage in fieldwork! Moving forward, many of our projects will move beyond the lab to study morality "in the wild" across a variety of organizational and cultural settings

4) Diverse backgrounds and life experiences. Academically, I welcome students from non-psychological fields that can complement my expertise (e.g. sociology, economics, etc.). I am also happy to discuss the differences between pursuing a PhD at Rady vs. a more traditional subdiscipline


In your statement of purpose, you are encouraged to:

(1) State a general research question or area that you’re most interested in pursuing, and why you are passionate about the topic

(2) Give a general sense of the reading that you’ve done, (beyond what has been written by Prof Rai) that has inspired you

(3) Communicate your research skill set, and describe some of your key experiences relevant to conducting Ph.D. research in the lab and in the field

(4) Give a sense of the type of questions or projects that you can envision working on with Prof. Rai, and why your skills and interests would make for a great fit. One strategy is to identify a paper written by Prof. Rai that connects well with your interests, and say why (e.g., maybe the topic/research questions align with your interests; maybe the methods would be useful for examining a different research question; maybe the findings spark ideas for pursuing different questions)

(5) Identify 1-2 other Rady faculty (or even UCSD faculty in other departments) who you might also work with—our Ph.D. students are encouraged to work with multiple faculty