Bias key in language evolution

July 11, 2014 by Kerry Faulkner, Science Network WA
The report concludes there is interplay between a conservative egocentric bias in which participants retained their initial sign until they encountered the soap and musical note. Credit: Jared Klett

As one local scientist so eloquently phrases it, the evolution of language is like a man with a Ford car, whose previous two cars were Fords but after experiencing his friend's Toyota has switched brands to what he considers a better quality vehicle.

According to UWA School of Psychology Associate Professor Nicolas Fay this simple analogy captures the findings of his most recent research; the is not neutral but depends on selectionist cultural evolutionary dynamics.

His team used an experiment based on a simple communication game to conclude that the interplay of egocentric bias and content bias preserves existing language from insignificant change.

They found the bias also allows for the adoption of superior variants through which language evolves.

The team used four eight-person micro-societies for their experiment in which each was asked to draw signs to communicate to a partner 16 concepts like soap opera, Brad Pitt and microwave.

Using as an example, participants used a variety of different signs when they played with their first partner—a bar of soap and a musical note, a television, a shower and a love heart.

As they interacted with other members of the micro-society, the soap and the musical note propagated until everyone was using a refined version of the sign.

"People stick with what they have used in the past which is an egocentric-bias; it's familiar and it's worked well for them, unless they encounter something they deem superior; a content-bias," A/Prof Fay says.

"When this happens the new variant is adopted and the old variant is extinguished.

"Our study suggests that changes in human communication systems work like this, but at the word-level, and we suspect this type of dynamics can explain other cultural phenomena too."

The report concludes there is interplay between a conservative egocentric bias in which participants retained their initial sign until they encountered the and musical note.

This indicates an opportunistic content bias that provides for the adoption of beneficial signs.

A/Prof Fay says language's 'content bias' means it evolves through a process where people assess language in terms of its intrinsic value.

"It's been very hard to prove that people do that but because we've done such a constrained experiment we can say with confidence that it exists and people do make these evaluations, and their behaviour is determined by the evaluation they make," he says.

Explore further: Distance from a conflict may promote wiser reasoning

More information: Monica Tamariz, T. Mark Ellison, Dale J. Barr, and Nicolas Fay. "Cultural selection drives the evolution of human communication systems." Proc. R. Soc. B August 7, 2014 281 1788 20140488; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.0488 1471-2954

Related Stories

Distance from a conflict may promote wiser reasoning

June 9, 2014
If you're faced with a troubling personal dilemma, such as a cheating spouse, you may think about it more wisely if you consider it as an outside observer would, according to research forthcoming in Psychological Science, ...

Musical training increases blood flow in the brain

May 7, 2014
Research by the University of Liverpool has found that brief musical training can increase the blood flow in the left hemisphere of our brain. This suggests that the areas responsible for music and language share common brain ...

Do women perceive other women in red as more sexually receptive?

July 11, 2014
Previous research has shown that men perceive the color red on a woman to be a signal of sexual receptivity. Women are more likely to wear a red shirt when they are expecting to meet an attractive man, relative to an unattractive ...

Recommended for you

Study: No evidence to support link between violent video games and behaviour

January 16, 2018
Researchers at the University of York have found no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent.

Study listens in on speech development in early childhood

January 15, 2018
If you've ever listened in on two toddlers at play, you might have wondered how much of their babbling might get lost in translation. A new study from the University of Toronto provides surprising insights into how much children ...

Study suggests people dislike you more for humblebragging than for regular boasting

January 12, 2018
A team of researchers from Harvard University and UNC-Chapel Hill has conducted a study regarding humblebragging—in which a person boasts about an achievement but tries to make it sound less boastful by minimizing it—and ...

Study identifies brain circuit controlling social behavior

January 11, 2018
A new study by researchers at Roche in Basel, Switzerland has identified a key brain region of the neural circuit that controls social behavior. Increasing the activity of this region, called the habenula, led to social problems ...

Can writing your 'to-do's' help you to doze? Study suggests jotting down tasks can speed the trip to dreamland

January 11, 2018
Writing a "to-do" list at bedtime may aid in falling asleep, according to a Baylor University study. Research compared sleep patterns of participants who took five minutes to write down upcoming duties versus participants ...

Tamper-resistant oxycodone tablets have no impact on overall opioid use

January 11, 2018
The introduction of tamper-resistant opioid tablets does not have an effect on rates of opioid use or harms at a population level, according to a new study led by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at UNSW ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.