Cultural transmission biases in humans
Information transmission is a memory task that evolved by natural selection. Human culturegreatly relies on information transmission for fitness benefits. Learning from third-partyexperience reduces the cost of making one’s own experiences. Therefore, humaninformation transmission is expected to filter out third-party experiences resulting in a moral-content bias. Our study found that individuals retain more moral than social content(W=1990.5, p=0.001), but not more than environmental content (W=1712, p=0.094).Nationality also influences the quantity remembered (H
=13.624, p=0.018). In a mini-culturecreated by transmission chains, no differences between moral, social and technical facts inproportion to total facts recalled were found (H
= 2.957, p-value = 0.565). However, strongmoral bias resulted in reduced recollection of total facts (F
=8.613, p=0.022). Reasons for theobserved results are discussed.
Human knowledge is acquired by personal experiences and interaction with people in acommunity, thereby receiving knowledge about third-party experiences. Using andprocessing this knowledge relies on memory, which is an apparent fitness advantage under natural selection (Nairne & Pandeirada, 2008). Therefore it is likely that the human memoryhas functional specialisation with respect to fitness-relevant information. As humans operatein communities, societal norms impose new selection pressures, which generate new fitnessadvantages based on the ability to adhere to these norms. This moral code can be regardedcultural traits, which are transmitted via social learning (Mesoudi & Whiten, 2008). As non-adherence to the moral codex can result in exclusion and discrimination within a society,learning the rules is extremely important to every individual. Self-learning by trial-and-error iscostly, thus learning from third-party experiences is the best way to attain knowledge aboutthese norms in a stable, but fast changing environment (Mesoudi & Whiten, 2008).Consequently, it would be expected that information transmission is biased towards retainingstrong moral content, such as gossip (Mesoudi
., 2006). To detect such a content bias, amultiple-subject transmission chain experiment was conducted (Mesoudi & Whiten, 2008), aswell as a single-subject experiment, to receive a better understanding of the principlesunderlying information filtering processes. It was hypothesised that the observed results of the multi-subject experiment would show an amplification of the single-subject results.
In experiment 1, participants chose the correct answers from a choice of 2-3 possiblesituation-relevant answers, relying on recalling and recognising information (verbal andpictorial) previously presented. If there is a moral bias in individual information processingand recollection, then a greater percentage of correct answers to moral content compared toother content would be expected.
Fifty-four subjects >18 years participated in a time-unlimited online-study. Participants read atext containing moral, social and environmental information (each 75 words, 6 sentences, 15propositions) similar to that used by Mesoudi
. (2006) (see Appendix1). As distractor