Prestige-biased social learning: current evidence and outstanding questions


Cultural evolution theory posits that a major factor in human ecological success is our high-fidelity and selective social learning, which permits the accumulation of adaptive knowledge and skills over successive generations. One way to acquire adaptive social information is by preferentially copying competent individuals within a valuable domain (success bias). However, competence within a domain is often difficult or impossible to directly assess. Almost 20 years ago, Henrich and Gil-White (HGW) suggested that people use indirect cues of success (e.g., differential levels of attention paid to models by other social learners) as adaptive short-cuts to select models from whom to learn. They called this use of indirect markers of success prestige bias. In this review, we re-visit HGW’s proposal, examining the evidence amassed since for the adaptiveness and use of prestige bias in humans. First, we briefly outline HGW’s theory. Second, we analyse whether prestige is associated with competence within valuable domains, which is a crucial assumption underlying the adaptiveness of prestige bias. Third, we discuss prestige cues that people use to infer success (e.g., the amount of voluntary deference and attention received by models). Fourth, we examine the evidence for and against the use of prestige bias in human adults and children. Finally, we point out limitations in the current literature and present new avenues for research on prestige bias.

Palgrave Communications 5, 20.