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Journal Article

Equifinality in empirical studies of cultural transmission


Barrett,  Brendan J.       
Department of Human Behavior Ecology and Culture, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Max Planck Society;

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Barrett, B. J. (2019). Equifinality in empirical studies of cultural transmission. Behavioural Processes, 161, 129-138. doi:10.1016/j.beproc.2018.01.011.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0003-85ED-C
Cultural systems exhibit equifinal behavior – a single final state may be arrived at via different mechanisms and/or from different initial states. Potential for equifinality exists in all empirical studies of cultural transmission including controlled experiments, observational field research, and computational simulations. Acknowledging and anticipating the existence of equifinality is important in empirical studies of social learning and cultural evolution; it helps us understand the limitations of analytical approaches and can improve our ability to predict the dynamics of cultural transmission. Here, I illustrate and discuss examples of equifinality in studies of social learning, and how certain experimental designs might be prone to it. I then review examples of equifinality discussed in the social learning literature, namely the use of s-shaped diffusion curves to discern individual from social learning and operational definitions and analytical approaches used in studies of conformist transmission. While equifinality exists to some extent in all studies of social learning, I make suggestions for how to address instances of it, with an emphasis on using data simulation and methodological verification alongside modern statistical approaches that emphasize prediction and model comparison. In cases where evaluated learning mechanisms are equifinal due to non-methodological factors, I suggest that this is not always a problem if it helps us predict cultural change. In some cases, equifinal learning mechanisms might offer insight into how both individual learning, social learning strategies and other endogenous social factors might by important in structuring cultural dynamics and within- and between-group heterogeneity.