Bidirectional interaction is more important than language in a cultural transmission task

Talk by PhD Student Karsten Olsen, IMC

2017.02.27 | Anne-Mette Pedersen

Date Tue 28 Feb
Time 11:00 13:00
Location IMC Meeting Room, Jens Chr. Skous Vej 4, Building 1483-312


Whereas a number of non-human animals display instances of culture, it is widely assumed that only human culture is cumulative. That is, humans are surrounded by cultural traits and knowledge resulting from an accumulation process over many generations, which would be impossible to obtain in an individual’s own lifetime. Research on this kind of cultural learning has provided many examples of the impressive accomplishments that this ability can generate. It remains to be fully understood, however, what the underlying cognitive mechanisms are, which make these accomplishments possible. 

Two observations can be made on previous behavioural experiments on cultural transmission processes: (1) the types of communication and interactions involved in the experimental conditions are often underspecified, and (2) the social-cognitive components of the studies have typically involved processes such as empathy, prosociality, and higher-level processes, such as language, while overlooking the role of simpler mechanisms, such as bi-directional communication and mutual adaptation, which are at the foundation of the uniquely human capacity for shared explicit metacogntion.

We present a novel linear transmission chain experiment, designed to contrast orthogonally the roles of bidirectional communication against verbal communication. This allowed us to ask the question whether it is “full language” that is primary in our cultural transmission context, or rather the way it is used (i.e. the kind of channel in which it us used). We used the Rubik’s Cube to investigate transmission of spatial cognition-based information, and we hypothesised that cultural transmission is facilitated more in a bidirectional interaction, than in linguistic interaction.

I will present this project, and the results that we have at this stage, with the aim of generating some discussion and suggestions for further development. 

Contact: Karsten Olsen, IMC,, School of Culture and Society