Cultural Evolution

Cultural Evolution explores how cultures change and adapt through innovation, diffusion, and social learning. It is characterized by complexity and adaptability. Key concepts include innovation, diffusion, and social learning, while mechanisms involve cultural transmission and selective pressures. Implications include cultural diversity and technological advancement, with challenges in data collection and ethics. Cultural divergence and convergence are common types, and it has applications in anthropology and archaeology.


  • Complexity: Cultural evolution is characterized by the intricate and multifaceted interactions that occur within societies. It involves the interplay of various cultural elements, including beliefs, customs, technologies, and social norms.
  • Adaptability: Cultures are dynamic and can adapt to changing environmental, social, and economic conditions. Cultural evolution reflects the capacity of societies to adjust and innovate in response to challenges.

Key Concepts:

  • Innovation: Innovation is a fundamental driver of cultural evolution. It involves the creation of new ideas, practices, technologies, or cultural artifacts. Innovations can originate from individuals or groups within a society and have the potential to reshape cultural landscapes.
  • Diffusion: Diffusion refers to the spread of cultural traits or innovations from one group or society to another. It can occur through various channels, including trade, migration, communication, and conquest. Diffusion contributes to the exchange of ideas and practices between cultures.
  • Social Learning: Social learning is a crucial mechanism in cultural evolution. It encompasses the ways in which individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and behaviors from others within their social environment. Social learning can occur through observation, imitation, and direct teaching.


  • Cultural Transmission: Cultural transmission is the process by which cultural information is passed from one generation or group to the next. It involves the transfer of knowledge, traditions, and practices through various means, such as oral tradition, written records, and educational institutions.
  • Selective Pressures: Selective pressures are external forces that influence the adoption or persistence of specific cultural traits. These pressures can include environmental conditions, economic demands, technological advancements, and social norms. Cultural traits that enhance survival or provide advantages are more likely to persist.


  • Cultural Diversity: Cultural evolution leads to the development of diverse cultural practices, languages, belief systems, and social structures. It highlights the richness of human cultural heritage and the uniqueness of different societies around the world.
  • Technological Advancement: Innovations and technological progress are integral outcomes of cultural evolution. The accumulation of knowledge and the refinement of technologies contribute to societal development and improved living standards.


  • Data Collection: Collecting comprehensive data on cultural changes and practices can be challenging. Cultural evolution involves complex interactions, and historical records may be incomplete or biased.
  • Ethical Considerations: Ethical dilemmas may arise when studying and influencing cultural evolution. Researchers must navigate issues related to cultural sensitivity, cultural appropriation, and the potential impacts of interventions.

Types of Cultural Evolution:

  • Cultural Divergence: Cultural divergence occurs when distinct cultures or subcultures develop over time. It is often driven by geographic isolation, cultural barriers, or unique historical trajectories.
  • Cultural Convergence: Cultural convergence involves the blending or merging of different cultural practices, ideas, or traits. It can result from increased interaction, globalization, and the adoption of shared technologies.


  • Anthropology: Cultural evolution is a foundational concept in anthropology. Cultural anthropologists use this framework to study and understand the diversity of human societies, their histories, and the cultural dynamics that shape them.
  • Archaeology: Archaeologists apply the principles of cultural evolution when analyzing artifacts and cultural changes over time. It helps them reconstruct the lifestyles, technologies, and social structures of past civilizations.

Case Studies

  • Language Evolution:
    • The development of modern languages from ancient languages is a classic example of cultural evolution. Over centuries, languages evolve, borrow words from other languages, and adapt to changing societal needs.
  • Technological Advancement:
    • The evolution of computing technology, from early mechanical calculators to modern smartphones, demonstrates how innovations build upon previous discoveries, resulting in the rapid advancement of technology.
  • Fashion Trends:
    • Fashion trends change over time due to cultural evolution. Styles, clothing materials, and aesthetics shift as a result of changing social norms, influences from other cultures, and individual creativity.
  • Cuisine and Food Habits:
    • Cultural evolution is evident in the development of regional cuisines. For example, the fusion of culinary traditions in the United States has led to dishes like sushi burritos and Tex-Mex cuisine.
  • Religious Practices:
    • Religions evolve as they adapt to different cultural contexts. Variations in religious rituals and beliefs occur as religious traditions spread to new regions and interact with local customs.
  • Artistic Movements:
    • Artistic styles, such as the transition from Romanticism to Modernism in visual arts, exemplify how cultural evolution influences artistic expression and aesthetics.
  • Social Media and Communication:
    • The rapid evolution of social media platforms and digital communication tools reflects the cultural shift towards online connectivity, information sharing, and new modes of interpersonal interaction.
  • Political Ideologies:
    • Political ideologies, like liberalism and socialism, have evolved over time in response to changing societal needs and global events. New political movements and philosophies emerge as cultural and political landscapes change.
  • Urban Development:
    • Cities undergo cultural evolution as architectural styles, urban planning, and infrastructure adapt to accommodate growing populations and changing lifestyles.
  • Education Systems:
    • Educational methods and systems evolve as societies recognize the need for updated curricula, teaching techniques, and technologies to meet the demands of contemporary knowledge and skills.

Key Highlights

  • Dynamic and Ongoing Process: Cultural evolution is a continuous and dynamic process in which cultures change, adapt, and develop over time. It reflects the capacity of societies to respond to challenges and opportunities.
  • Complex Interactions: Cultural evolution involves complex interactions within societies, including changes in beliefs, practices, technologies, and social norms. These interactions shape the cultural landscape.
  • Innovation and Diffusion: Innovation, the creation of new ideas and practices, and diffusion, the spread of cultural traits, are fundamental drivers of cultural evolution. They lead to the development of new cultural practices and the sharing of knowledge between societies.
  • Social Learning: Social learning plays a central role in cultural evolution, allowing individuals to acquire knowledge and skills from others within their social environment. It includes processes like observation, imitation, and direct teaching.
  • Cultural Transmission: Cultural transmission is the means by which cultural information is passed from one generation or group to the next. It includes oral traditions, written records, and educational institutions.
  • Selective Pressures: External forces, such as environmental conditions, economic demands, and societal needs, influence the adoption or persistence of cultural traits. Traits that enhance survival or provide advantages are more likely to endure.
  • Cultural Diversity: Cultural evolution leads to the development of diverse cultural practices, languages, belief systems, and social structures. It highlights the richness of human cultural heritage and the uniqueness of different societies worldwide.
  • Technological Advancement: Innovations and technological progress are integral outcomes of cultural evolution. The accumulation of knowledge and the refinement of technologies contribute to societal development and improved living standards.
  • Challenges in Data Collection: Studying cultural evolution can be challenging due to the complexity of interactions and the availability of historical records. Collecting comprehensive data is essential for understanding cultural changes.
  • Ethical Considerations: Researchers must navigate ethical dilemmas when studying and influencing cultural evolution. Issues related to cultural sensitivity, cultural appropriation, and the potential impacts of interventions require careful consideration.
  • Types of Cultural Evolution: Cultural divergence involves the development of distinct cultures or subcultures, while cultural convergence results from the blending of different cultural practices or ideas.
  • Applications in Anthropology and Archaeology: Cultural evolution is foundational in anthropology and archaeology. It helps researchers understand the diversity of human societies, their histories, and the cultural dynamics that shape them.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Lindy Effect

The Lindy Effect is a theory about the ageing of non-perishable things, like technology or ideas. Popularized by author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the Lindy Effect states that non-perishable things like technology age – linearly – in reverse. Therefore, the older an idea or a technology, the same will be its life expectancy.


Antifragility was first coined as a term by author, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragility is a characteristic of systems that thrive as a result of stressors, volatility, and randomness. Therefore, Antifragile is the opposite of fragile. Where a fragile thing breaks up to volatility; a robust thing resists volatility. An antifragile thing gets stronger from volatility (provided the level of stressors and randomness doesn’t pass a certain threshold).

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Recognition Heuristic

The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.

Bundling Bias

The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart’s Law is named after British monetary policy theorist and economist Charles Goodhart. Speaking at a conference in Sydney in 1975, Goodhart said that “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” Goodhart’s Law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years. This observation was made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 and it become a guiding principle for the semiconductor industry and has had far-reaching implications for technology as a whole.

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation as a term was first described by Clayton M. Christensen, an American academic and business consultant whom The Economist called “the most influential management thinker of his time.” Disruptive innovation describes the process by which a product or service takes hold at the bottom of a market and eventually displaces established competitors, products, firms, or alliances.

Value Migration

Value migration was first described by author Adrian Slywotzky in his 1996 book Value Migration – How to Think Several Moves Ahead of the Competition. Value migration is the transferal of value-creating forces from outdated business models to something better able to satisfy consumer demands.

Bye-Now Effect

The bye-now effect describes the tendency for consumers to think of the word “buy” when they read the word “bye”. In a study that tracked diners at a name-your-own-price restaurant, each diner was asked to read one of two phrases before ordering their meal. The first phrase, “so long”, resulted in diners paying an average of $32 per meal. But when diners recited the phrase “bye bye” before ordering, the average price per meal rose to $45.


Groupthink occurs when well-intentioned individuals make non-optimal or irrational decisions based on a belief that dissent is impossible or on a motivation to conform. Groupthink occurs when members of a group reach a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the alternatives and their consequences.


A stereotype is a fixed and over-generalized belief about a particular group or class of people. These beliefs are based on the false assumption that certain characteristics are common to every individual residing in that group. Many stereotypes have a long and sometimes controversial history and are a direct consequence of various political, social, or economic events. Stereotyping is the process of making assumptions about a person or group of people based on various attributes, including gender, race, religion, or physical traits.

Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Murphy’s Law was named after aerospace engineer Edward A. Murphy. During his time working at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949, Murphy cursed a technician who had improperly wired an electrical component and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

Law of Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences was first mentioned by British philosopher John Locke when writing to parliament about the unintended effects of interest rate rises. However, it was popularized in 1936 by American sociologist Robert K. Merton who looked at unexpected, unanticipated, and unintended consequences and their impact on society.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution error is a bias people display when judging the behavior of others. The tendency is to over-emphasize personal characteristics and under-emphasize environmental and situational factors.

Outcome Bias

Outcome bias describes a tendency to evaluate a decision based on its outcome and not on the process by which the decision was reached. In other words, the quality of a decision is only determined once the outcome is known. Outcome bias occurs when a decision is based on the outcome of previous events without regard for how those events developed.

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is the tendency for people to perceive past events as more predictable than they actually were. The result of a presidential election, for example, seems more obvious when the winner is announced. The same can also be said for the avid sports fan who predicted the correct outcome of a match regardless of whether their team won or lost. Hindsight bias, therefore, is the tendency for an individual to convince themselves that they accurately predicted an event before it happened.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon Effect.

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