Spontaneous Social Conventions: An Experimental Study of Cultural Evolution

Damon Centola, U Pennsylvania, Communications
Social conventions are the foundation of social cooperation and productive economic activity, yet very little is known about how and when they form. Prominent theories argue that widely shared social conventions depend up on coordinating mechanisms, such as incentives for global coordination, aggregated information, and social leadership. We explore a competing ‘evolutionary’ theory of conventions, which hypothesizes that broad social coordination can emerge without any of these mechanisms. We use an Internet experiment to study the real-time evolution of endogenous collective behaviors from a ‘state of nature’ in which there are an infinite number of possible cultural conventions and no incentives for global coordination. Our results confirm our formal hypotheses, demonstrating that changes to network connectivity can generate the spontaneous formation of global social conventions. The results have unexpected implications for the evolution of culture in the expanding online domain.
April, 4 2016 | 12:30 p.m. - 2:00 p.m. | 270 Gross Hall

Return to seminar series