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Cultural Transmission and the Diffusion of Innovations: Adoption Dynamics Indicate That Biased Cultural Transmission Is the Predominate Force in Behavioral Change

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Abstract

In challenging the pervasive model of individual actors as cost-benefit analysts who adapt their behavior by learning from the environment, this article analyzes the temporal dynamics of both environmental (individual) learning and biased cultural transmission processes by comparing these dynamics with the robust “5-shaped” curves that emerge from the diffusion of innovations literature. The analysis shows three things: (1) that environmental learning alone never produces the 5-shaped adoption dynamics typically observed in the spread of novel practices, ideas, and technologies; (2) that biased cultural transmission always produces the S-shaped temporal dynamics; and (3) that a combination of environmental learning and biased cultural transmission can generate 5-dynamics but only when biased cultural transmission is the predominate force in the spread of new behaviors. These findings suggest that biased cultural transmission processes are much more important to understanding the diffusion of innovations and sociocultural evolution than is often assumed by most theorists. [diffusion of innovations, cultural transmission, learning, cultural evolution]

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