“Experimental Evidence for Scale-Induced Category Convergence across Populations.” Nature Communications, 2020.

Doug Guilbeault, Andrea Baronchelli, and Damon Centola

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 20 communication in large social groups introduces path dependence in category formation, which is expected to lead separate populations toward divergent cultural trajectories. Yet, ethnographic 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 25 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 30 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.