The spontaneous emergence of conventions: An experimental study of cultural evolution

Damon Centola, Andrea Baronchelli
2015 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America  
How do shared conventions emerge in complex decentralized social systems? This question engages fields as diverse as linguistics, sociology and cognitive science. Previous empirical attempts to solve this puzzle all presuppose that formal or informal institutions, such as incentives for global agreement, coordinated leadership, or aggregated information about the population, are needed to facilitate a solution. Evolutionary theories of social conventions, by contrast, hypothesize that such
more » ... tutions are not necessary in order for social conventions to form. However, empirical tests of this hypothesis have been hindered by the difficulties of evaluating the real-time creation of new collective behaviors in large decentralized populations. Here, we present experimental results - replicated at several scales - that demonstrate the spontaneous creation of universally adopted social conventions, and show how simple changes in a population's network structure can direct the dynamics of norm formation, driving human populations with no ambition for large scale coordination to rapidly evolve shared social conventions.
doi:10.1073/pnas.1418838112 pmid:25646462 pmcid:PMC4343158 fatcat:64spktiddnglzoqozyz2f25oum