A computational model of the cultural co-evolution of language and mindreading

Marieke Woensdregt, Chris Cummins, Kenny Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Several evolutionary accounts of human social cognition posit that language has co-evolved with the sophisticated mindreading abilities of modern humans. It has also been argued that these mindreading abilities are the product of cultural, rather than biological, evolution. Taken together, these claims suggest that the evolution of language has played an important role in the cultural evolution of human social cognition. Here we present a new computational model which formalises the assumptions that underlie this hypothesis, in order to explore how language and mindreading interact through cultural evolution. This model treats communicative behaviour as an interplay between the context in which communication occurs, an agent’s individual perspective on the world, and the agent’s lexicon. However, each agent’s perspective and lexicon are private mental representations, not directly observable to other agents. Learners are therefore confronted with the task of jointly inferring the lexicon and perspective of their cultural parent, based on their utterances in context. Simulation results show that given these assumptions, an informative lexicon evolves not just under a pressure to be successful at communicating, but also under a pressure for accurate perspective-inference. When such a lexicon evolves, agents become better at inferring others’ perspectives; not because their innate ability to learn about perspectives changes, but because sharing a language (of the right type) with others helps them to do so.
Original languageEnglish
Early online date2 Oct 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2 Oct 2020


  • language evolution
  • mindreading
  • cultural evolution
  • computational modelling
  • iterated learning
  • Bayesian inference


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