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Cultural transmission biases in humans

Cultural transmission biases in humans

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Samantha Alex Gordine. Originally submitted for Animal Behaviour - a quantitative approach at University of St. Andrews, with lecturer Thomas Morgan in the category of Life Sciences
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Samantha Alex Gordine. Originally submitted for Animal Behaviour - a quantitative approach at University of St. Andrews, with lecturer Thomas Morgan in the category of Life Sciences

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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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.
Experiment 1
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
et al 
. (2006) (see Appendix1). As distractor 
tasks, 5 different pictures were presented, followed by a 20 question multiple-choice recalltask (6 moral content, 5 social content, 4 environmental content, 5 pictorial content). Inaddition, subjects were asked to provide further information about age, gender, nationalityand occupation. Re-access to previous pages was prevented. Each subject was assigned ascore for answering questions correctly a) in each question category and b) overall.
Only 11.11% of the participants answered all questions correctly. Every participant answeredat least 40% correctly, with the percentage of correct answers being slightly exponentiallydistributed (=0.825, IQR=0.238). On average, 91.7% of the questions in the moral category(IQR=0.167), but only 80% of the social questions (IQR=0.4) were answered correctly.Participants answered 87.5% of the environmental questions (IQR=0.5) right and the picturequestions were all solved correctly (=1, IQR=0.2). One of the social questions offered awrong multiple-choice answer that would have implied a moral implication. This answer wasselected by 18 subjects, who only got 71.9% answers correct, which is 15% less than theaverage participant (t=-4.536, p<0.001). The percentage of correct answers depends on thequestion’s content (H
=24.274, p<0.001) (Fig.1). Moral content was remembered significantlybetter than social content (W=1990.5, p<0.001). However, the retained moral content did notdiffer significantly from environmental (W=1712, p=0.094) and pictorial content (W=739,p<0.001) recalled. Interestingly, the percentage of pictorial content recalled is significantlyless than social (W=739, p<0.001) and environmental (W=979.5, p<0.001) content, but doesnot differ from moral content (W=1228.5, p=0.113). Age, gender and occupation did notaffect the overall performance or the performance in any question class. Nationality did showan effect (H
=13.624, p=0.018), with Central Europeans having less correct answers thanEastern Europeans (W=725.5, p=0.016), Scandinavians (W=770, p=0.032) and U.S. citizens(W=1190, p=0.017). The only question content that was significantly influenced by nationalitywas social content (Fig.2). Here, Middle Eastern subjects recalled less social answerscorrectly than Central Europeans (W=64, p=0.048) and U.S. citizens (W=0, p=0.049).Scandinavians did better than Central Europeans in recollecting social information (W=24p=0.029). Overall, the percentage of correct answers depends on both information contentand participant’s nationality.
The percentage of correctanswers in the single-subjectexperiment differs according toquestion content. The Boxplotsprovide a 5-number summary of the obtained results in eachquestion class. See text for thediscussion of the results.
The percentage of social questions answered correctly is different for subjects of different origin. See text for discussion oft he results.Central Europeans: British, Belgian, Scottish, French, German; Middle Eastern: Turkish,Pakistani; Eastern European: Bulgarian, Romanian, Polish, Russian; Scandinavian:Swedish, Norwegian; Other: South African, n/a
The moral and social content differences had been expected under our hypothesis. However,the ability to recall almost as much environmental as moral content was unexpected. Thismight be because content memorability depends on subsequent decisions based on theobtained information (Dellarosa & Bourne, 1984) and on survival relevance (Nairne &Pandeirada, 2008). Environmental information may inform about the stability of thecommunity, which is of great importance to the reliability on information transmission(McElreath
et al 
., 2008). It may also provide important details about a survival advantage,which would enhance content transmission (Nairne & Pandeirada, 2008). The superior effectof pictorial recollection over word remembrance is unsurprising, as pictures have a stronger presence in memory (Childers & Houston, 1984) and especially the spatial memory (Park
et al 
., 1983). In memorising pictures, parallel processing and synchronous organisation isrequired (Paivio & Csapo 1973). Images produce multiple cues for memorability (Childers &Houston, 1984; Park
et al.,
1983), encoding the information more reliably in a more chunkedmanner than words (Paivio & Csapo 1973; Childers & Houston, 1984). Despite the pictorialrecollection superiority, moral content was recalled at almost the same accuracy, indicatingequal importance of moral and pictorial content and supporting the moral bias hypothesis.The observed effects of nationality may result from the fact that transmission is biasedtowards the stereotypes observed in each culture (Kashima, 2000). In an unstableenvironment, e.g. shaped by war like the Middle East, knowledge obtained by social learningmay be outdated (Kameda & Nakanishi, 2002). Equilibrium between people relying on sociallearning and personal learning is established. New knowledge is unlikely to enter the

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