Three predictions for cultural attraction theory

The next EHBEA conference in Paris will include a “satellite meeting” on cultural attraction theory: Cultural Evolution by Cultural Attraction: Empirical Issues

I will give a talk titled Three predictions for cultural attraction theory. Below the (tentative) slides. If you cannot wait, the three predictions are:

  1. lo-fi copying is more significant than hi-fi copying in cultural transmission
  2. domain-general social influence (context-biases) is not very important
  3. culture is a matter of global, often neutral, traditions, more than local, generally adaptive, differences

As I will explain, cultural attraction theory does not depend on these predictions being true but, if they are, cultural attraction is particularly appealing. If they are false, conversely, the explanative power of cultural attraction may be quite low. I just gave the talk to a group of philosophers that got rightly frustrated by my use of the term “prediction”. Given the alternatives (assumptions, prognostications, presuppositions, commitments, pillars) I might anyway stick with it for the time being.

I am not sure if I will be repeating the obvious or if I will (unwillingly) upset cultural attraction people, so perhaps the talk may not be too pointless.

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5 thoughts on “Three predictions for cultural attraction theory

  1. Contentious theses, Alberto! Unsurprisingly, I have a million questions already. Here’s hoping we can chew some of them over in a week’s time : )

    I’m not one of those philosophers who will get mad at you for calling those hypotheses ‘predictions’, but I am suspicious of the relatively unconstrained way in which you use ‘significant’ and ‘important’ — i.e. significant as opposed to what? -important for what time-frame? -for which phenomena?

    Of course, I should point out that even if your theses turn out to be true, this doesn’t entail that cultural attract(ion/or) theory is explanatorily powerful. CAT might well paint an accurate picture of the world, but not have the requisite empirical tools to explain or predict phenomena.

    1. Hi Andrew, thank you for your comment!

      I agree with you that I am using quite loosely those terms in my slides and, in fact, I do not feel I can provide a more precise characterisation at the moment. The goal would be to draw the attention to those questions, and, as a consequence, find a better way to characterise them. Of course I’d consider it a success if someone else, stimulated by the talk, would do it! 🙂

  2. Interesting topic as always. On the subject of “lo-fi” and “hi-fi” copying, two things come to mind. The first is that it looks like the phenomenon in question is a case of what computer scientists call “data compression”. In the example you cite it looks like “lossy” compression, however, without a means to measure the information content of the two texts it’s hard to say exactly. There is already evidence from cognitive neuroscience that the brain compresses information for storage.

    The second thing is that without prediction I don’t see that this phenomenon supports attractor theory. If attractor theory could predict how the information in the “hi-fi” text would be compressed into the “lo-fi” text then that would be powerful indeed. This would mean that given a “hi-fi” text and a certain number of copying generations predict what the “lo-fi” text would contain. Without this all you can really say is that the brain is compressing information. Since this is not a new finding I do not see this as evidence in support of attractor theory. Attractor theory would have to describe (in an empirically verifiable way) how this compression mechanism works for it to have real explanatory power.

    1. Thank you for your comment!
      Just a note on your second point (which may perhaps also help about the first…). I agree that, with no predictions on what kind of compression takes place, cultural attraction theory would not be very interesting. I did not really explore this in the slides, but the idea is that the transformations of the content are predictable. In particular, they should be consistent with various psychological biases. These go from general factors (for example concrete terms should replace, on average, abstract terms) to fairly specific ones (for example a bias for “minimally counterintuitive concepts” – i.e. concepts that fit our intuitive cognitive expectations but with few violations, such as superheroes, gods, etc.).

      p.s. this post (the last part) may also be of some interest.

      1. The topic of measurement in cultural evolution interests me a lot. I did a small bit of research on the subject of stories and how they evolve over time. There seems to be quite of lot of research in this area. One paper struck me as particularly interesting due to its methodology. The paper is “Cognitive Structures in Comprehension and Memory of Narrative Discourse” [Thorndyke, 1977]. Thorndyke found that, “Information higher in the hierarchical structure is better recalled than information lower in the hierarchy.”

        Thorndyke modeled stories using a tree (network) structure and then experimented with recall and comprehensibility. The nice feature of this approach is that you can measure changes to the network. For example, in your lo-fi vs hi-fi case, if the text had been modeled then you could measure changes to that model in each generation and you could have predicted what the network would look like at the end.

        There are many benefits to modeling cultural phenomena as network data structures. One that I find especially intriguing is the link with neurology. We know that the brain’s neural “connectome” is a network structure. There is also evidence that information is stored in the brain as network structures. Hence, we might model learning as the copying of network structures (or fragments of these structures) between people where the network structure stands for the internal representation of the information.

        I view the issue of “what is actually the subject of cultural evolution” that is, “what is the thing that is evolving?” as one of the key problems in the field, if not the key problem. Answers to this question are what I look for in any theory of cultural evolution.

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