Innovation and social transmission in experimental micro-societies: Exploring the scope of cumulative culture in young children

Nicola McGuigan, Emily Burdett, Vanessa Burgess, Lewis Dean, Amanda Lucas, Gillian Vale, Andrew Whiten*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Citations (Scopus)
36 Downloads (Pure)


The experimental study of cumulative culture and the innovations essential to it is a young science, with child studies so rare that the scope of cumulative cultural capacities in childhood remains largely unknown. Here we report a new experimental approach to the inherent complexity of these phenomena. Groups of 3–4-year-old children were presented with an elaborate array of challenges affording the potential cumulative development of a variety of techniques to gain increasingly attractive rewards. In contrast to a prior study, we found evidence for elementary forms of cumulative cultural progress, with inventions of solutions at lower levels spreading to become shared innovations, and some children then building on these to create more advanced but more rewarding innovations. This contrasted with markedly more constrained progress when children worked only by themselves, or if groups faced only the highest-level challenges from the start. Further experiments that introduced higher-level inventions via the inclusion of older children, or that created ecological change, with the easiest habitual solutions no longer possible, encouraged higher levels of cumulative innovation. Our results show children are not merely ‘cultural sponges’, but when acting in groups, display the beginnings of cycles of innovation and observational learning that sustain cumulative progress in problem solving. This article is part of the themed issue ‘Process and pattern in innovations from cells to societies’.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20160425
Number of pages14
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1735
Publication statusPublished - 5 Dec 2017


  • Cultural evolution
  • Culture
  • Cumulative culture
  • Innovation
  • Social learning
  • Tool use

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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