Cultures need strong social networks to flourish

Ever wondered why some cultures die out while others flourish?

Well, a new study suggests this could be down to the strength of their social networks.

Led by the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada, the study, titledSociality influences cultural complexity“, found that cultures become endangered if their social networks don’t provide individuals learning new skills and knowledge enough access to teachers and experts.

Prof. Joseph Henrich of UBC’s department of psychology, and colleagues, report their findings in a recent online issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

They ran a series of experiments where groups learned skills and then passed them onto others, simulating the handing down of cultural knowledge from generation to generation.

Cultures prevail when there are several teachers

They found being able to learn from several teachers allowed groups to hold onto and even improve their skills over successive generations. But if access is restricted to fewer teachers, the skills diminished over successive generations.

Lead author Michael Muthukrishna, a doctoral student in UBC’s department of psychology, says the study shows social connectedness, as well as having a big enough population, are crucial in helping sophisticated technologies and cultural knowledge to flourish, and adds:

“This is the first study to demonstrate in a laboratory setting what archeologists and evolutionary theorists have long suggested: that there is an important link between a society’s sociality and the sophistication of its technology.”

For their study, the researchers ran a set of experiments where groups of participants had to learn new skills and then pass them onto the next “generation” of participants. The skills were digital photo editing and knot-tying.

The results showed that within 10 “generations”, the groups where individuals had access to several teachers become significantly more knowledgeable and skilled than groups where individuals had access only to one or two. They also retained their knowledge and skills for longer.

The researchers suggest the findings could also give clues about how to protect languages and cultural practices that are in danger of dying out.