Cognitive and Emotional Processes
in the Cultural Transmission
of Natural and Nonnatural Beliefs
University of British Columbia
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris,
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
What makes an idea culturally successful, such as the widespread notion in many societies of ancestor spirits, a haiku, or the recipe for apple pie? To be sure, not all ideas are culturally successful. Some ideas are never represented in minds. Some are represented, but never communicated to others. Yet other ideas are successfully communicated to enough people that they become fashionable for a short time, but quickly fade away. But a small number of ideas are culturally successful: They permanently invade a group of minds. According to an epidemiological approach to explaining culture, then, “contagious” ideas and their material effects, such as texts, tools, buildings, and artwork, constitute what we call culture. According to this view, an idea is “cultural” to the extent that it is widespread in a group (Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman, 1981; Sperber, 1990, 1996; see also Campbell, 1974; Dawkins, 1982; Boyd & Richerson, 1985).
Many factors are important in determining the extent to which ideas achieve a cultural level of distribution. Some are ecological, including the rate of prior exposure to an idea in a population, physical as well as social facilitators and barriers to communication and imitation, and institutional structures that reinforce or suppress an idea. Others are psychological, including the ease with which an idea can be represented and remembered, the intrinsic interest that it evokes in people so that it is processed and rehearsed, and the motivation and facility to communicate the idea to others.