How to Create Shared Symbols

Nicolas Fay, Bradley Walker, Nik Swoboda, Simon Garrod

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)
118 Downloads (Pure)


Human cognition and behavior are dominated by symbol use. This paper examines the social learning strategies that give rise to symbolic communication. Experiment 1 contrasts an individual-level account, based on observational learning and cognitive bias, with an inter-individual account, based on social coordinative learning. Participants played a referential communication game in which they tried to communicate a range of recurring meanings to a partner by drawing, but without using their conventional language. Individual-level learning, via observation and cognitive bias, was sufficient to produce signs that became increasingly effective, efficient, and shared over games. However, breaking a referential precedent eliminated these benefits. The most effective, most efficient, and most shared signs arose when participants could directly interact with their partner, indicating that social coordinative learning is important to the creation of shared symbols. Experiment 2 investigated the contribution of two distinct aspects of social interaction: behavior alignment and concurrent partner feedback. Each played a complementary role in the creation of shared symbols: Behavior alignment primarily drove communication effectiveness, and partner feedback primarily drove the efficiency of the evolved signs. In conclusion, inter-individual social coordinative learning is important to the evolution of effective, efficient, and shared symbols.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)241-269
Number of pages29
JournalCognitive Science
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2018


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