Using the methods of social psychology to study cultural evolution


Cultural psychology, and other social sciences (e.g. cultural anthropology, sociology), seek to document cultural variation, yet have difficulty providing strong empirical tests of explanations for that variation. It is argued here that an effective means of testing hypotheses regarding the origin of, and persistence and change in, cultural variation is by simulating cultural transmission in the lab using certain methods from experimental social psychology. Three experimental methods are reviewed: the transmission chain method, the replacement method, and the constant-group method. Although very few studies have explicitly simulated specific cross-cultural patterns, much potential exists for future investigations. This integration of small-scale experimental simulations and large-scale observational or historical data is facilitated by an evolutionary framework for the study of culture, and has a precedent in the biological sciences, where experiments are used to simulate and explain the processes of biological evolution.

Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology 1, 35–58.