ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2023, Vol. 31 ›› Issue (5): 866-886.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2023.00866

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Experimental evidence for internal mechanisms of cumulative cultural evolution

YANG Lei1, CHEN Weiyang2(), BAI Baoyu1, ZHONG Nian1   

  1. 1Department of Psychology, School of Philosophy, Wuhan University, Wuhan 430072, China
    2Research Institute of Social Development, Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, Chengdu 611130, China
  • Received:2022-07-06 Online:2023-05-15 Published:2023-02-13
  • Contact: CHEN Weiyang


Cultural change has gradually become the focus of psychologists’ attention, and related studies have addressed core issues such as the content, causes, and mechanisms of cultural change. Cultural evolution, a way of studying cultural change from an evolutionary perspective, explores the issue of the mechanism of cultural change. Cumulative Cultural Evolution (CCE) is a subset of cultural evolution. It refers to the adaptive changes in efficiency, function, and complexity of human culture over time through multiple social transmissions and innovation among individuals or groups. CCE plays a vital role in understanding the mechanisms of the emergence of human cultural uniqueness and sociocultural change.
Throughout the research in this area, single-subject experiments, “microsocieties” designs, and computer simulations have often been used to explore the underlying mechanisms. Based on the evidence from these three types of laboratory studies, it is possible to sort out the mechanisms of occurrence and influence of CCE. In terms of the mechanisms by which CCE occurs, the transmission and modification of cultural information are the two core processes of CCE. Numerous empirical studies have found that copying and teaching ensure high-fidelity transmission of cultural information. Copying includes both results-oriented and action-oriented copying, and teaching can be defined as the act of facilitating the learning of others. These two are considered two representative social learning mechanisms in information transmission. The modification of cultural information is reflected in innovation. Empirical evidence shows that innovation can make modified cultural information more adaptive. The high-fidelity transmission prepares the ground for cultural innovation, and culture achieves sequential improvement through repeated cycles of high-fidelity transmission and modification, promoting the cumulative development of culture. Thus, copying, teaching, and innovation are three crucial foundations for CCE.
In addition, CCE is a complex dynamic process in which behavior and environment interact. In this process, various factors influence information transmission and modification that originate from the environment where the information is transmitted and from the subject who transmits the information. Therefore, the influence mechanism of CCE can be understood in terms of environmental and subjective factors. The former mainly involves task difficulty, environmental uncertainty, group size, and social interaction; the latter mainly involves technical reasoning, cognitive flexibility, innovation ability, and social identity. The generalization of these factors can help explain the boundary conditions under which CCE occurs and, in particular, clarify inconsistent findings that have emerged from previous studies. Overall, these factors affect how information is processed in the transmission process, such as identification, collection, and use, which affects the rate of cultural accumulation and the probability of innovation.
CCE explains the uniqueness of human culture from the perspective of accumulated modifications of culture over time, while laboratory studies in this field specifically describe how cultural information is transmitted from person to person to produce change. Future research can advance the field in terms of research methods, research areas, and research mechanisms. Specifically, first, the new paradigm (single subject multi-task design) is proposed considering the operationalization of task characteristics, and the feasibility of this new paradigm needs more empirical evidence to verify. Second, the current research on CCE has accumulated rich empirical evidence in the technical domain, and future research can consider conducting more laboratory studies in non-technical domains. Finally, the upward transmission of cultural information has been neglected in previous studies of CCE. Future research could consider exploring the value and significance of this process in CCE in the context of the current phenomenon of “cultural feedback” in China.

Key words: cumulative cultural evolution, cultural change, copying, teaching, innovation

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