How social learning adds up to a culture: From birdsong to human public opinion

O Tchernichovski, Olga Feher, D Fimiarz, C Dalton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Distributed social learning may occur at many temporal and spatial scales, but it rarely adds up to a stable culture. Cultures may vary in stability and diversity (polymorphism), ranging from chaotic or drifting cultures, through cumulative polymorphic cultures, to stable monolithic cultures with high conformity levels. What features can sustain polymorphism, preventing cultures from collapsing into either chaotic or highly conforming states? We investigate this question by integrating studies across two disjoint disciplines: the emergence of song cultures in birds, and the spread of public opinion and social conventions in humans. In songbirds, the learning process has been studied in great detail, while in human studies the structure of social networks has been experimentally manipulated in large scales. In both cases, the manner in which communication signals are compressed and filtered – either during learning, or while traveling through the social network – can affect culture polymorphism and stability. We suggest a simple mechanism of a shifting balance between converging and diverging social forces to explain those effects. Understanding social forces that shape cultural evolution might be useful for designing agile communication systems, which are stable and polymorphic enough to promote gradual changes in institutional behavior.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)124-132
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jan 2017


Dive into the research topics of 'How social learning adds up to a culture: From birdsong to human public opinion'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this