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Durham University

Cross-Cultural Social Learning Project

Cross-Cultural Social Learning Project

The ESRC funded Social Learning project,"An experimental study of East-West differences in social learning" is based in the Department of Anthropology, Durham University, and the Department of Educational Psychology, Chinese University of Hong Kong. This project studies cross-cultural differences in social learning, using fun, lab-based computer games. Researchers working on the project are interested in whether degree of social learning differs cross-culturally, and also the reasons why this may be the case, and possible implications of this research.

Key finding: People from mainland China copy other people more in an artifact-design task compared to people from the UK, people from Hong Kong, and Chinese students studying in the UK. [Link to published paper]

What is social learning?

Psychologists and anthropologists define ‘social’ learning as learning from others, such as by observing their actions or through spoken or written language. ‘Individual’ or ‘asocial’ learning is learning on one’s own, through trial-and-error.


Why is social learning important?

Evolutionary anthropologists think that the ability to learn from others has been key to our species’ success [1]. Many species have social learning, such as bees learning the location of food from other bees or chimpanzees learning how to use stones to crack nuts from other chimpanzees. However, only humans can learn skills and knowledge from others that no single human could invent on their own, such as advanced mathematics or quantum physics, or how to make spears, cars or computers. It is this ability to accumulate knowledge and technology over many generations that has allowed us to colonise virtually every environment on Earth [2]. In the modern world, social learning lies at the heart of education, training, science and technology.


How did we study social learning?

We used a computer task in which people designed a ‘virtual arrowhead’ [3]. Screenshots of the task can be seen below, in (A) English and (B) Chinese. Participants design their arrowhead and then go hunting, receiving a payoff (in calories, but which later converted into real-world money) that depended on the design of their arrowhead. Over a series of hunts, people could improve their arrowhead either by social learning – copying the arrowhead design of another person who had previously played the game – or asocial learning – using trial-and-error to try to find the best arrowhead design. We were interested in how often they use social learning. This task is designed to be challenging and engaging, and simulate the kinds of technology that is common in the archaeological record – actual arrowheads, but also spears, bows, baskets and fishing hooks.


Who did we test?

The vast majority of psychology experiments are conducted on Western (typically North American or Western European) university students, which is a very narrow sample of our species [4]. Previous experiments using this virtual arrowhead task found that British students copy less than they should do, if they were maximising their monetary payoffs [5]. Here, we also tested university students from mainland China – Chao Zhou, a relatively small and traditional Chinese city in Guangdong province – plus students from Hong Kong (which has of course had a history of Western influence) – and Chinese students currently studying in the UK.


What did we find?

People from mainland China copied others significantly more – about twice as often – as the other participants (see figure below). Across all groups people preferentially copied the most successful person who had achieved the highest score. In most of the groups, copying therefore allowed people to quickly and easily acquire an effective arrowhead, and resulted in higher payoffs. Mainland Chinese students were also less responsive to changing conditions within the game (i.e. what makes a good arrowhead).


Frequency of copying (from 0-1) in an artifact design task. UK = British, HK = Hong Kong, CI = Chinese Immigrants to the UK, CM = Chinese Mainland. Error bars show standard error.


What does this mean, theoretically?

This shows that there is cross-cultural variation in the tendency with which people use social learning. On the basis of these findings, we can say that people from traditional areas of China rely more on other people’s knowledge and expertise, compared to people from the UK. People in Hong Kong and Chinese people living in the UK were indistinguishable from the White British people, suggesting that these groups have become ‘Westernised’.

Consequently, it is incorrect to say that there is a universal ‘human’ level of social learning. Future social learning research should pay greater attention to the cultural backgrounds of the participants used in experiments, and study the ‘social learning of social learning’ - the means by which we acquire our tendency to copy others via education, migration and institutions. We can also ask what historical factors led the West to culturally evolve to rely more on asocial learning, and East Asia more on social learning [6].


What does this mean, practically?

Many educators have noticed that Chinese and other non-Western education systems are more heavily based on rote learning and copying the work of others. This causes problems when Chinese students study in Western countries, because in Western systems this is often classed as plagiarism. Our findings suggest that Chinese students do not intentionally break the rules, but this arises because of different learning styles.

Non-Western companies are also more likely to copy the products of other companies, compared to the stronger patent laws in the West. Again, these differences may result from broader and deep-rooted cross-cultural variation in learning styles.



1. Boyd, R., Richerson, P. J. & Henrich, J. 2011 The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 108, 10918–10925.

2. Dean, L. G., Vale, G. L., Laland, K. N., Flynn, E. & Kendal, R. L. 2013 Human cumulative culture: a comparative perspective. Biol. Rev.

3. Mesoudi, A., Chang, L., Murray, K. & Lu, H. In press. Higher frequency of social learning in China than in the West shows cultural variation in the dynamics of cultural evolution. Proc. R. Soc. B

4. Henrich, J., Heine, S. J. & Norenzayan, A. 2010 The weirdest people in the world? Behav. Brain Sci. 33, 61–135.

5. Mesoudi, A. 2011 An experimental comparison of human social learning strategies: payoff-biased social learning is adaptive but underused. Evol. Hum. Behav. 32, 334–342. (doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.12.001)

6. Chang, L., Mak, M., Li, T., Wu, B. P., Chen, B. B. & Lu, H. J. 2011 Cultural adaptations to environmental variability: an evolutionary account of east-west differences. Educ. Psychol. Rev. 23, 99–129.

Contact Details

Alex Mesoudi
Department of Anthropology
Durham University
Dawson Building,
South Road,
Durham, DH1 3LE
Tel: +44 (0) 191 334 1612