Cultural transmission in an ever-changing world: Trial-and-error copying may be more robust than precise imitation

Noa Truskanov*, Yosef Prat

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cultural transmission facilitates the spread of behaviours within social groups and may lead to the establishment of stable traditions in both human and non-human animals. The fidelity of transmission is frequently emphasized as a core component of cultural evolution and as a prerequisite for cumulative culture. Fidelity is often considered a synonym of precise copying of observed behaviours. However, while precise copying guarantees reliable transmission in an ideal static world, it may be vulnerable to realistic variability in the actual environment. Here, we argue that fidelity may be more naturally achieved when the social learning mechanisms incorporate trial-and-error; and that the robustness of social transmission is thereby increased. We employed a simple model to demonstrate how culture that is produced through exact copying is fragile in an (even slightly) noisy world. When incorporating a certain degree of trial-and-error, however, cultures are more readily formed in a stochastic environment and are less vulnerable to rare ecological changes. We suggest that considering trial-and-error learning as a stabilizing component of social transmission may provide insights into cultural evolution in a realistic, variable, world.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20170050
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1743
StatePublished - 5 Apr 2018


  • Copying errors
  • Cultural evolution
  • Imitation
  • Social learning
  • Transmission fidelity
  • Trial-and-error learning


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