Evaluating the relative contributions of copying and reconstruction processes in cultural transmission episodes

September 22, 2021

James W. A. Strachan, Arianna Curioni, Merryn D. Constable, Günther Knoblich, Mathieu Charbonneau

The ability to transmit information between individuals through social learning is a foundational component of cultural evolution. However, how this transmission occurs is still debated. On the one hand, the copying account draws parallels with biological mechanisms for genetic inheritance, arguing that learners copy what they observe and novel variations occur through random copying errors. On the other hand, the reconstruction account claims that, rather than directly copying behaviour, learners reconstruct the information that they believe to be most relevant on the basis of pragmatic inference, environmental and contextual cues. Distinguishing these two accounts empirically is difficult based on data from typical transmission chain studies because the predictions they generate frequently overlap. In this study we present a methodological approach that generates different predictions of these accounts by manipulating the task context between model and learner in a transmission episode. We then report an empirical proof-of-concept that applies this approach. The results show that, when a model introduces context-dependent embedded signals to their actions that are not intended to be transmitted, it is possible to empirically distinguish between competing predictions made by these two accounts. Our approach can therefore serve to understand the underlying cognitive mechanisms at play in cultural transmission and can make important contributions to the debate between preservative and reconstructive schools of thought.