Debra Lieberman

Assoc. Professor

Phone:
(305) 284-1566
Locator Code:
0751

 
About
Dr. Debra Lieberman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Miami. Her research aims to understand how evolution has shaped the social mind. To this end Dr. Lieberman applies theoretical tools from evolutionary biology to develop hypotheses regarding function, generates information-processing models that specify how the functional mechanism operates, and then empirically tests the validity of these models. Dr. Lieberman studies a range of phenomena including kinship, altruism, sexuality, disgust, morality, and, gratitude.
Career

Education

2003Ph.D. Psychology University of California Santa Barbara
1995B.S. Biochemistry SUNY Binghamton

Professional Experience

2018 - Editor-in-Chief, Evolution and Human Behavior
2008 - Faculty, University of Miami
2003 - 2008Faculty, University of Hawaii
Research

Research

Currently, my research focuses on social relationships (e.g., kinship and friendships) and emotions, most notably disgust and its relationship with morality, law, and psychopathology. I also investigate the evolved function of gratitude. In my research I generate and test information-processing models that begin with a consideration of the selection pressures that forged our psychology over human evolutionary history. When possible, I seek to test these models in diverse cultural settings, in humans young and old, and by using various behavioral, cognitive, and neuroscientific methods.

Publications

Lieberman, D. & Patrick, C. (2018). Objection: Disgust, Morality and the Law. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/objection-9780190491291?cc=us&lang=en&

Billingsley, J., Boos, B., & Lieberman, D. (in press). What evidence is required to determine whether infants infer the genetic relatedness of third parties? A commentary on Spokes and Spelke (2017). Cognition.

Lieberman, D., Billingsley, J., & Patrick, C. (2018). Consumption, contact, and copulation: How pathogens have shaped human psychological adaptations. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B: Biological Sciences, 373: 20170203.

Billingsley, J., Lieberman, D., & Tybur, J. (2018). Sexual disgust trumps pathogen disgust in predicting voter behavior during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Evolutionary Psychology April-June, 1-15.

Patrick, C. & Lieberman, D. (2017). Not from a wicked heart: Testing the assumptions of the provocation doctrine. Nevada Law Journal, 18(1), 33-59.

Smith, A., Pedersen, E., Forster, D., McCullough, M.E., & Lieberman, D. (2017). Cooperation: The roles of interpersonal value and gratitude. Evolution and Human Behavior, 38, 695-703.

Lieberman, D., & Patrick, C. (2014). Are the behavioral immune system and pathogen disgust identical? Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 8, 244-250.

Lieberman, D. & Billingsley, W.J. (2016). Kinship and cooperation. Current Opinions in Psychology, 7, 57-60.

Tybur, J., Lieberman, D., Kurzban, R., & DeScioli, P. (2013). Disgust: Evolved function and structure. Psychological Review, 120, 65-84.

Lieberman, D. & Lobel, T. (2012). Kinship on the Kibbutz: Coresidence duration predicts altruism, personal sexual aversions, and moral attitudes among communally reared peers. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33, 26-34.

Oum, R. E., Lieberman, D., & Aylward, A. (2011). A feel for disgust: Tactile cues to pathogen presence. Cognition and Emotion, 25, 717-725.

Lieberman, D., Pillsworth, E. G., & Haselton, M. G. (2011). Kin affiliation across the ovulatory cycle: Females avoid fathers when fertile. Psychological Science, 22, 13-18.

Tybur, J., Lieberman, D., & Griskevicius, V. (2009). Microbes, mating, and morality: Individual differences in three functional domains of disgust. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 103-122.

Schaich Borg, J., Lieberman, D., & Kiehl, K. A. (2008). Infection, incest, and iniquity: Investigating the neural correlates of disgust and morality. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20, 1529-1546.
Lieberman, D., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2007). The architecture of human kin detection. Nature, 445 (7129), 727-731.

Research Projects

How do humans learn who counts as a close genetic relative?
During the 1950s and 60s, the modern synthesis in biology brought into focus the role that genes play in the process of natural selection, thus Mendelizing Darwinian views of the evolutionary process. One of the major advancements during this time period was the development and publication of inclusive fitness theory (Hamilton, 1964), which recognized that adaptations for altruism could evolve between kin. Kin are individuals with an increased probability above population average of sharing the same genes by virtue of common descent. Critically, the mathematical equation modeling when it would pay for an individual to behave altruistically (C<rB) posited a variable, r, which captures the degree of relatedness between two individuals. Biologists soon realized that somehow, individual organisms were computing r to regulate altruistic as well as inbreeding avoidance behaviors. In the decades following the publication of inclusive fitness theory, biologists documented how non-human species ranging from bees to lions performed this process of "kin detection" (Hepper, 1991). My research addresses this fundamental issue in humans and investigates how, throughout development, humans learn to distinguish kin from non-kin, and how kin detection regulates altruistic and sexual motivations. In a series of publications (e.g., Lieberman, Tooby, & Cosmides, 2003, Proceedings B; Lieberman, Tooby, & Cosmides, 2007, Nature; Lieberman & Lobel, 2012, Evolution and Human Behavior), my co-authors and I discuss the kinship cues that evolved to regulate sexual and altruistic motivations toward siblings.
What are the evolved functions of disgust?
Researchers across a wide range of disciplines have become interested in the emotion disgust. Many of these researchers utilize the model of disgust put forth by Paul Rozin, Jonathan Haidt, and colleagues (Rozin et al., 2008). According to this model, there are 4 different disgust domains: core disgust, animal reminder disgust, interpersonal disgust, and moral disgust. Though this model incorporates aspects of evolved function, it falls short of providing a rigorous explanation of why we find particular behaviors and items disgusting as well as the selection pressures that led to the evolution of disgust adaptations. In an attempt to revise the current understanding of disgust, I developed a new model of disgust with my colleague Josh Tybur. We proposed that disgust evolved to regulate the avoidance of substances harboring pathogens and was co-opted to regulate decisions regarding mating behavior (e.g., incest avoidance) and, ultimately, other social transgressions (Tybur, Lieberman, & Griskevicius, 2009, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology). My colleagues and I have found behavioral and neuroscientific evidence that disgust does indeed partition into these three functional domains (Schaich Borg, Lieberman, & Kiehl, 2008, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience). We have used this theoretical framework to develop a scale measuring individual differences in disgust sensitivities, the Three Domain Disgust Scale (Tybur et al., 2009), and have developed a computational model of disgust that specifies the types of information processing systems required to perform each domain-specific function (Tybur, Lieberman, Kurzban, & DeScioli, 2013, Psychological Review).