Research Article: Copy-the-majority of instances or individuals? Two approaches to the majority and their consequences for conformist decision-making

Date Published: January 25, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Thomas J. H. Morgan, Alberto Acerbi, Edwin J. C. van Leeuwen, Valerio Capraro.


Cultural evolution is the product of the psychological mechanisms that underlie individual decision making. One commonly studied learning mechanism is a disproportionate preference for majority opinions, known as conformist transmission. While most theoretical and experimental work approaches the majority in terms of the number of individuals that perform a behaviour or hold a belief, some recent experimental studies approach the majority in terms of the number of instances a behaviour is performed. Here, we use a mathematical model to show that disagreement between these two notions of the majority can arise when behavioural variants are performed at different rates, with different salience or in different contexts (variant overrepresentation) and when a subset of the population act as demonstrators to the whole population (model biases). We also show that because conformist transmission changes the distribution of behaviours in a population, how observers approach the majority can cause populations to diverge, and that this can happen even when the two approaches to the majority agree with regards to which behaviour is in the majority. We discuss these results in light of existing findings, ranging from political extremism on twitter to studies of animal foraging behaviour. We conclude that the factors we considered (variant overrepresentation and model biases) are plausibly widespread. As such, it is important to understand how individuals approach the majority in order to understand the effects of majority influence in cultural evolution.

Partial Text

Effective decision making relies on the ability of individuals to combine multiple sources of information in such a way that fitness is maximized. Other individuals can serve as sources of “social” information and patterns in the use of social information have been referred to as “social learning strategies” [1] and “transmission biases” [2]. One social learning strategy of particular interest is “copy the majority” [1] in which observers adopt behaviours performed by the majority of the population. Provided that each individual performs above chance (i.e. individuals are more likely to pick the right option than a wrong one) and that individuals’ decisions are independent, copy-the-majority strategies are highly effective [3] and should be preferred over any copy-the-minority strategy [4].

So far, we have demonstrated that counts of individuals and instances may, in theory, be in opposition to each other when one behaviour is performed more frequently, more saliently, or more publicly than another. We now review published accounts in order to assess the plausibility of these circumstances across species, with a special focus on scenarios in which the least common variant (in terms of individuals) is the most common (in terms of instances). Our goal is to provide evidence for the plausibility of variant overrepresentation and model biases in a wide range of contexts, without making any specific claims about precisely how widespread these phenomena are.

The work presented here uses a modelling approach to demonstrate that different observers who identify the majority behaviour by counting instances or by counting individuals, respectively, may disagree over which behaviour is in the majority when there is variation in the rate at which different behavioural variants are performed. Moreover, we show that having a subset of the population acting as demonstrators to the population as a whole, changes the probability of such disagreement occurring. Finally, as above, we note that existing theory [5] makes clear that in such cases, populations composed of conformist learners who count instances or individuals, respectively, will converge on different behaviours and so differences at the level of majority identification can have population level consequences.




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