Causal understanding is not necessary for the improvement of culturally evolving technology

Date created: | Last Updated:


Creating DOI. Please wait...

Create DOI

Category: Project

Description: Highly-optimized tools are common in traditional populations. Bows and arrows, dogsleds, clothing, houses, and kayaks are just a few examples of the complex, exquisitely designed tools that humans produced and used to colonize new, demanding environments. Because there is much evidence that humans’ cognitive abilities are unparalleled, many believe that such technologies resulted from our superior causal reasoning abilities. However, others have stressed that the high dimensionality of human technologies make them very hard to understand causally. Instead, they argue that optimized technologies emerge through the selective retention of small improvements across generations without requiring explicit understanding of how these technologies work. Here, we find experimental support for the latter view by showing that a physical artifact becomes progressively optimized across generations of social learners in the absence of explicit causal understanding. We find that participants do not spontaneously create multidimensional causal theories but instead mainly produce simplistic models related to a specifically salient dimension. Finally, we show that the transmission of these simplistic theories constrain exploration in subsequent generations of learners and has negative downstream effects on their understanding. These results indicate that highly optimized technologies do not necessarily result from evolved reasoning abilities but instead can emerge from the blind accumulation of many small improvements made across generations linked by cultural transmission, and demand a focus on the cultural dynamics underlying technological change as well as individual cognition.

This project represents a pending preprint submitted to PsyArXiv . Learn more about how to work with preprint files. View preprint


Loading files...


Recent Activity

Loading logs...

This website relies on cookies to help provide a better user experience. By clicking Accept or continuing to use the site, you agree. For more information, see our Privacy Policy and information on cookie use.

Start managing your projects on the OSF today.

Free and easy to use, the Open Science Framework supports the entire research lifecycle: planning, execution, reporting, archiving, and discovery.

Create an Account Learn More Hide this message