Mechanisms of Cultural Transmission: Beyond Social Learning

March 24, 2010

On 17 March Olivier Morin, PhD student, Institute Jean Nicod, Paris, gave a presentation at CEU about the way in which cultural traditions are passed down. He argued that social learning mechanisms alone (such as imitation or communication) cannot account for the stability of cultural traditions. In particular, even social learning mechanisms ensuring a good transmission of behaviors or of ideas, from one individual to another, are never immune to small deviations that will inevitably accumulate with time. Olivier Morin suggested that the stability of cultural transmission is affected not only by the nature of social transmission mechanisms, but also by how much of cultural transmission takes place. Phenomena such as broadcasting (transmitting to many people) or repetition (transmitting many times to the same person) were shown to be sufficient to maintain stable traditions, even in the absence of faithful mechanisms of social learning.

Olivier Morin identified two components that determine how much transmission happens, and thus may explain cultural “success”: possibilities for transmission, and a motivation to pass down the tradition. Some recent cultural traditions can benefit from broadcasting. In this context, the fidelity of social transmission alone can allow for a tradition to be passed down. However, most traditions, and in particular the first human cultures, emerged in contexts in which the opportunities for large-scale direct diffusion (in time as well as in space) were very limited. Morin argued that without large-scale direct diffusion both a motivation to pass down traditions and fidelity in social transmission mechanisms were necessary for a cultural tradition to survive.

In the last part of his talk, Morin turned to children’s peers’ cultures as an illustration of his views. Children’s traditions (games, rimes, rituals) are not less stable than adult oral traditions. This phenomenon is particularly striking, he argued, since the renewal of population in children’s peer culture is much higher than in adults’ cultures. He suggested that this stability cannot be explained by the fact that the elements of children’s peer culture are more memorable, or by the fact that they would be transmitted from adults to children (a form of large-scale direct diffusion). Morin suggested that the elements of children’s culture are special in that they provide motivation for abundant transmission.