Doctoral Dissertation Research: Social Transmission Mechanisms of Cumulative Cultural Evolution

Project Details


Rutgers University doctoral student, Helen Wasielewski, under the direction of Dr. Lee Cronk, will investigate the effects of social learning on accumulative social change. The researcher will focus specifically on comparing the effects of imitation (behavior copying) with emulation (copying of products of behavior). Using an experimental micro-society design, which is a laboratory method for simulating cultural generations, the research will (1) improve understanding of how different social learning mechanisms contribute to the evolution of cumulative culture; (2) develop new methods for studying cumulative culture; and (3) contribute to better understanding of human cognitive evolution.

The researcher will collect data by videotaping social information transfer in a laboratory setting. Subjects will be asked to construct a weight-supporting device using simple materials and their success will be evaluated by measuring the maximum weight that each constructed device is capable of supporting. The subjects will be videotaped as they work and the tapes subjected to a close analysis to determine the amount and success of information transfer under different social learning conditions. The researcher will focus on (1) the interactions between the type of learning used and the rate of accumulation of changes to culture, (2) the effects of different social learning mechanisms on the fidelity of information transmission, and (3) the efficacy of behavioral information transmission by emulation in the absence of direct access to the behavior itself (that is, by looking solely at successful device examples without being able to observe the behaviors that produced them).

This research is important because it will help social scientists to better understand the cognitive changes that were necessary in human evolution for people to develop and pass on complex cultural practices. It also will contribute to understanding how cultural information is transferred between individuals, which is of interest to those concerned with cultural variation and processes of change. Funding this research also supports the education of a social scientist.

Effective start/end date7/1/106/30/11


  • National Science Foundation: $19,284.00


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