Greater learnability is not sufficient to produce cultural universals

Anna N. Rafferty, Thomas L. Griffiths, Marc Ettlinger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations

Abstract

Looking across human societies reveals regularities in the languages that people speak and the concepts that they use. One explanation that has been proposed for these "cultural universals" is differences in the ease with which people learn particular languages and concepts. A difference in learnability means that languages and concepts possessing a particular property are more likely to be accurately transmitted from one generation of learners to the next. Intuitively, this difference could allow languages and concepts that are more learnable to become more prevalent after multiple generations of cultural transmission. If this is the case, the prevalence of languages and concepts with particular properties can be explained simply by demonstrating empirically that they are more learnable. We evaluate this argument using mathematical analysis and behavioral experiments. Specifically, we provide two counter-examples that show how greater learnability need not result in a property becoming prevalent. First, more learnable languages and concepts can nonetheless be less likely to be produced spontaneously as a result of transmission failures. We simulated cultural transmission in the laboratory to show that this can occur for memory of distinctive items: these items are more likely to be remembered, but not generated spontaneously once they have been forgotten. Second, when there are many languages or concepts that lack the more learnable property, sheer numbers can swamp the benefit produced by greater learnability. We demonstrate this using a second series of experiments involving artificial language learning. Both of these counter-examples show that simply finding a learnability bias experimentally is not sufficient to explain why a particular property is prevalent in the languages or concepts used in human societies: explanations for cultural universals based on cultural transmission need to consider the full set of hypotheses a learner could entertain and all of the kinds of errors that can occur in transmission.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)70-87
Number of pages18
JournalCognition
Volume129
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Oct 2013
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

Keywords

  • Cultural evolution
  • Cultural universals
  • Iterated learning
  • Learnability bias
  • Vowel harmony

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