Social learning mechanisms and cumulative cultural evolution: is imitation necessary?



Caldwell CA & Millen AE (2009) Social learning mechanisms and cumulative cultural evolution: is imitation necessary?. Psychological Science, 20 (12), pp. 1478-1483.

Cumulative cultural evolution has been suggested to account for key cognitive and behavioral attributes which distinguish modern humans from our anatomically similar ancestors, but researchers have yet to establish which cognitive mechanisms are responsible for this kind of learning, and whether these are unique to humans. We have shown that human participants’ cumulative learning is not always reliant on sources of social information commonly assumed to be essential. Seven hundred participants were organized into seventy microsocieties, and completed a task involving building a paper airplane. We manipulated the availability of opportunities for: imitation (reproducing actions); emulation (reproducing end results); and teaching. Each was independently sufficient for participants to show cumulative learning. Since emulative learning can elicit cumulative culture on this task, we conclude that accounts of the unusual complexity of human culture in terms of species-unique learning mechanisms do not currently provide complete explanations, and other factors may be involved.

imitation; social learning; culture; cumulative culture; cultural evolution; Culture Origin; Primates Behavior; Social behavior in animals

Psychological Science: Volume 20, Issue 12

Publication date31/12/2009
PublisherWiley-Blackwell / Association for Psychological Science

People (2)


Professor Christine Anna Caldwell

Professor Christine Anna Caldwell

Professor & Deputy Dean of Faculty, Psychology

Dr Ailsa Millen

Dr Ailsa Millen

Lecturer in Psychology, Psychology