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Are the new mass media subverting cultural transmission?

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Popular culture is a subcategory of culture. Today, mass and new media appear to be interfering with the evolved mechanisms that permit the acquisition and editing of culture. We know surprisingly little about these cognitive attentional processes that enable the information acquisition and editing packed into the term “cultural transmission.” It was Michael Chance who first concluded that we attend to and learn preferentially from those high in status. For Chance, high status based on fear leads to agonistic attention and a constricted type of learning, while hedonic attention based on respect permits much broader learning possibilities. If Chance's theories are supported, then it would follow that much of the current unpredictability of popular culture and culture change in general reflects the replacement of family and community high-status figures by influential media celebrities, thereby damaging the transmission of local culture. Chance's approach would also explain why we seem to find it difficult to pay attention to those low in status and power. There may be attractors of attention involved in cultural transmission in addition to status, including physical attractiveness. We consider, from an evolutionary perspective, various researchable hypotheses that stem from Chance's and related work and from ethnography, we discuss this work's implications for how we understand culture and “popular culture,” and we argue that the kind of research in cognitive and evolutionary psychology we espouse is also needed for the next generation of mathematical models of gene–culture coevolution. We conclude with a list of research questions. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)121-133
Number of pages13
JournalReview of General Psychology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2012

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