Human Nature

, Volume 25, Issue 1, pp 161–179 | Cite as

Imitation Is Necessary for Cumulative Cultural Evolution in an Unfamiliar, Opaque Task

  • Helen Wasielewski


Imitation, the replication of observed behaviors, has been proposed as the crucial social learning mechanism for the generation of humanlike cultural complexity. To date, the single published experimental microsociety study that tested this hypothesis found no advantage for imitation. In contrast, the current paper reports data in support of the imitation hypothesis. Participants in “microsociety” groups built weight-bearing devices from reed and clay. Each group was assigned to one of four conditions: three social learning conditions and one asocial learning control condition. Groups able to observe other participants building their devices, in contrast to groups that saw only completed devices, show evidence of successive improvement. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that imitation is required for cumulative cultural evolution. This study adds crucial data for understanding why imitation is needed for cultural accumulation, a central defining feature of our species.


Social learning Cultural transmission Imitation Experimental microsocieties Cultural evolution 



This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 096213. Several individuals provided helpful comments on earlier drafts: I am grateful for the help of Lee Cronk, Steve Buyske, Alex Mesoudi, Sarah Wise, and members of the Evolution, Psychology, and Culture group. Two anonymous reviewers also provided useful comments. Finally, I thank the research assistants and research participants for their help.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyNew BrunswickUSA

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