Transmitting functions

Culturally transmitted knowledge changes as it is transmitted from person to person. Some of the most striking instances of this process come from cases of language acquisition. For example, in Nicaragua, a community of deaf children transformed a fragmentary pidgin into a language with rich grammatical structure by learning from each other (Kegl and Iwata, 1989; Senghas and Coppola, 2001). Languages, legends, and social norms are all shaped by the processes of cultural transmission (Cavalli-Sforza, 1981; Boyd and Richerson, 1988; Kirby, 1999, 2001; Briscoe, 2002).

Laboratory studies of cultural transmission often use the method of “iterated learning”, which has roots in Bartlett’s experiments. In the iterated learning paradigm, information is passed along a chain of individuals, from one to the next, much like in the children’s game Telephone. Iterated learning paradigms for the transmission of language and other forms of knowledge have been developed, too (Kalish et al., 2007; Griffiths and Kalish, 2007; Griffiths et al., 2008a). For example, in one study, participants learned the relationship between two continuous variables (“function learning”) and were tested on what they had discovered (Kalish et al., 2007). Responses on the test were then used to train the next participant in the chain. Kalish et al. (2007) found that, over time, knowledge transmitted through the chain reverts to the prior beliefs of the individual learners.

Kalish, M. L., Griffiths, T. L., & Lewandowsky, S. (2007). Iterated learning: Intergenerational knowledge transmission reveals inductive biases. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 14, 288-294.

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