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Experimental evidence for scale-induced category convergence across populations

Guilbeault, D., Baronchelli, A. ORCID: 0000-0002-0255-0829 & Centola, D. (2021). Experimental evidence for scale-induced category convergence across populations. Nature Communications, 12(1), 327. doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-20037-y


Individuals vary widely in how they categorize novel and ambiguous phenomena. This individual variation has led influential theories in cognitive and social science to suggest that communication in large social groups introduces path dependence in category formation, which is expected to lead separate populations toward divergent cultural trajectories. Yet, anthropological data indicates that large, independent societies consistently arrive at highly similar category systems across a range of topics. How is it possible for diverse populations, consisting of individuals with significant variation in how they categorize the world, to independently construct similar category systems? Here, we investigate this puzzle experimentally by creating an online "Grouping Game" in which we observe how people in small and large populations collaboratively construct category systems for a continuum of ambiguous stimuli. We find that solitary individuals and small groups produce highly divergent category systems; however, across independent trials with unique participants, large populations consistently converge on highly similar category systems. A formal model of critical mass dynamics in social networks accurately predicts this process of scale-induced category convergence. Our findings show how large communication networks can filter lexical diversity among individuals to produce replicable society-level patterns, yielding unexpected implications for cultural evolution.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this license, visit
Publisher Keywords: Humans; Population Density; Social Behavior; Social Networking; Time Factors; Vocabulary
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
H Social Sciences > HA Statistics
H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
Q Science > QA Mathematics
Departments: School of Science & Technology > Mathematics
Text - Published Version
Available under License Creative Commons: Attribution International Public License 4.0.

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