Cognitive Prerequisites for Cumulative Culture are Context-Dependent: Children's Potential for Ratcheting Depends on Cue Longevity


Wilks CEH, Rafetseder E, Renner E, Atkinson M & Caldwell CA (2021) Cognitive Prerequisites for Cumulative Culture are Context-Dependent: Children's Potential for Ratcheting Depends on Cue Longevity. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 204, Art. No.: 105031.

Human cumulative culture has been suggested to depend on human-unique cognitive mechanisms, explaining its apparent absence in other species. We show that the potential for exhibiting cumulative culture depends on the cognitive abilities of the agents and the demands associated with using information generated by others’ activity. 154 children aged 3-6 years played a searching game (“Find the Treasure”), taking their turn after a puppet demonstrator. The puppet’s attempt revealed information about the contents of the locations searched, which could be exploited to target rewarded locations, and avoid unrewarded ones. Two conditions were presented, intended to capture realistic variation in the transience of the cues generated by another individual’s activity. In one condition, the puppet’s demonstration provided transient information – boxes were opened, seen to be rewarded or not, and then closed. In the other condition the puppet’s chosen boxes remained partially open, providing an enduring visible cue as to whether that location was rewarded. Children undertook three trials of varying demonstration success, and we used patterns of performance to infer the potential for improvement over multiple generations of transmission. In the Enduring Cues condition, children’s performance demonstrated the potential for cumulative culture. In contrast, in the Transient Information condition, only older children showed improved performances following higher success demonstrations and overall performance was not compatible with the possibility of improvements over generations of social transmission. We conclude that under certain conditions cumulative culture could occur in many species, but in a broader range of contexts in humans.

Cumulative culture; cultural evolution; ratchet effect; cognitive development; comparative psychology; social learning

Journal of Experimental Child Psychology: Volume 204

FundersEuropean Commission (Horizon 2020)
Publication date30/04/2021
Publication date online07/01/2021
Date accepted by journal08/10/2020