Cultural transmission results in convergence towards colour term universals

Jing Xu, Mike Dowman, Thomas L. Griffiths

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


As in biological evolution, multiple forces are involved in cultural evolution. One force is analogous to selection, and acts on differences in the fitness of aspects of culture by influencing who people choose to learn from. Another force is analogous to mutation, and influences how culture changes over time owing to errors in learning and the effects of cognitive biases. Which of these forces need to be appealed to in explaining any particular aspect of human cultures is an open question. We present a study that explores this question empirically, examining the role that the cognitive biases that influence cultural transmission might play in universals of colour naming. In a large-scale laboratory experiment, participants were shown labelled examples from novel artificial systems of colour terms and were asked to classify other colours on the basis of those examples. The responses of each participant were used to generate the examples seen by subsequent participants. By simulating cultural transmission in the laboratory, we were able to isolate a single evolutionary force-the effects of cognitive biases, analogous to mutation-and examine its consequences. Our results show that this process produces convergence towards systems of colour terms similar to those seen across human languages, providing support for the conclusion that the effects of cognitive biases, brought out through cultural transmission, can account for universals in colour naming.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20130108
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1758
StatePublished - May 7 2013
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


  • Bayesian inference
  • Colour term universals
  • Cultural evolution
  • Iterated learning
  • World colour survey


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