Higher frequency of social learning in China than in the West shows cultural variation in the dynamics of cultural evolution

Alex Mesoudi, Lei Chang, Keelin Margaret Murray, Hui Jing Lu

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Cultural evolutionary models have identified a range of conditions under
which social learning (copying others) is predicted to be adaptive relative
to asocial learning (learning on one’s own), particularly in humans where
socially learned information can accumulate over successive generations.
However, cultural evolution and behavioural economics experiments have
consistently shown apparently maladaptive under-utilization of social information in Western populations. Here we provide experimental evidence of
cultural variation in people’s use of social learning, potentially explaining
this mismatch. People in mainland China showed significantly more social
learning than British people in an artefact-design task designed to assess the
adaptiveness of social information use. People in Hong Kong, and Chinese
immigrants in the UK, resembled British people in their social information
use, suggesting a recent shift in these groups from social to asocial learning
due to exposure to Western culture. Finally, Chinese mainland participants
responded less than other participants to increased environmental change
within the task. Our results suggest that learning strategies in humans are culturally variable and not genetically fixed, necessitating the study of the ‘social
learning of social learning strategies’ whereby the dynamics of cultural
evolution are responsive to social processes, such as migration, education
and globalization.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20142209
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1798
Early online date12 Nov 2014
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jan 2015


  • Asocial learning
  • Cultural evolution
  • Cultural transmission
  • Innovation
  • Social learning


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