Prestige does not affect the cultural transmission of novel controversial arguments in an online transmission chain experiment


Cultural evolutionary theories define prestige as social rank that is freely conferred on individuals possessing superior knowledge or skill, in order to gain opportunities to learn from such individuals. Consequently, information provided by prestigious individuals should be more memorable, and hence more likely to be culturally transmitted, than information from non-prestigious sources, particularly for novel, controversial arguments about which preexisting opinions are absent or weak. It has also been argued that this effect extends beyond the prestigious individual’s relevant domain of expertise. We tested whether the prestige and relevance of the sources of novel, controversial arguments affected the transmission of those arguments, independently of their content. In a four-generation linear transmission chain experiment, British participants (N = 192) recruited online read two conflicting arguments in favour of or against the replacement of textbooks by computer tablets in schools. Each of the two conflicting arguments was associated with one of three sources with different levels of prestige and relevance (high prestige, high relevance; high prestige, low relevance; low prestige, low relevance). Participants recalled the pro-tablets and anti-tablets arguments associated with each source and their recall was then passed to the next participant within their chain. Contrary to our predictions, we did not find a reliable effect of either the prestige or relevance of the sources of information on transmission fidelity. We discuss whether the lack of a reliable effect of prestige on recall might be a consequence of differences between how prestige operates in this experiment and in everyday life.

Journal of Cognition and Culture 20, 238–261.