How social learning adds up to a culture: From birdsong to human public opinion

Ofer Tchernichovski, Olga Feher, Daniel Fimiarz, Dalton Conley

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Distributed social learning may occur at many temporal and spatial scales, but it rarely adds up to a stable culture. Cultures vary in stability and diversity (polymorphism), ranging from chaotic or drifting cultures, through cumulative polymorphic cultures, to stable monolithic cultures with high conformity levels. What features can sustain polymorphism, preventing cultures from collapsing into either chaotic or highly conforming states? We investigate this question by integrating studies across two quite separate disciplines: The emergence of song cultures in birds, and the spread of public opinion and social conventions in humans. In songbirds, the learning process has been studied in great detail, while in human studies the structure of social networks has been experimentally manipulated on large scales. In both cases, the manner in which communication signals are compressed and filtered - either during learning or while traveling through the social network - can affect culture polymorphism and stability. We suggest a simple mechanism of a shifting balance between converging and diverging social forces to explain these effects. Understanding social forces that shape cultural evolution might be useful for designing agile communication systems, which are stable and polymorphic enough to promote gradual changes in institutional behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)124-132
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Insect Science
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Physiology


  • Birdsong
  • Culture
  • Public opinion
  • Social learning
  • Vocal learning


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