Growing knowledge culturally across generations to solve novel, complex tasks

by   Michael Henry Tessler, et al.

Knowledge built culturally across generations allows humans to learn far more than an individual could glean from their own experience in a lifetime. Cultural knowledge in turn rests on language: language is the richest record of what previous generations believed, valued, and practiced. The power and mechanisms of language as a means of cultural learning, however, are not well understood. We take a first step towards reverse-engineering cultural learning through language. We developed a suite of complex high-stakes tasks in the form of minimalist-style video games, which we deployed in an iterated learning paradigm. Game participants were limited to only two attempts (two lives) to beat each game and were allowed to write a message to a future participant who read the message before playing. Knowledge accumulated gradually across generations, allowing later generations to advance further in the games and perform more efficient actions. Multigenerational learning followed a strikingly similar trajectory to individuals learning alone with an unlimited number of lives. These results suggest that language provides a sufficient medium to express and accumulate the knowledge people acquire in these diverse tasks: the dynamics of the environment, valuable goals, dangerous risks, and strategies for success. The video game paradigm we pioneer here is thus a rich test bed for theories of cultural transmission and learning from language.


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