Higher frequency of social learning in China than in the West shows cultural variation in the dynamics of cultural evolution


Cultural evolutionary models have identified a range of conditions under which social learning (copying others) is predicted to be adaptive relative to asocial learning (learning on one’s own), particularly in humans where socially learned information can accumulate over successive generations. However, cultural evolution and behavioural economics experiments have consistently shown apparently maladaptive under-utilization of social information in Western populations. Here we provide experimental evidence of cultural variation in people’s use of social learning, potentially explaining this mismatch. People in mainland China showed significantly more social learning than British people in an artefact-design task designed to assess the adaptiveness of social information use. People in Hong Kong, and Chinese immigrants in the UK, resembled British people in their social information use, suggesting a recent shift in these groups from social to asocial learning due to exposure to Western culture. Finally, Chinese mainland participants responded less than other participants to increased environmental change within the task. Our results suggest that learning strategies in humans are culturally variable and not genetically fixed, necessitating the study of the `social learning of social learning strategies’ whereby the dynamics of cultural evolution are responsive to social processes, such as migration, education and globalization.

Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 282, 20142209. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.2209