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Spreading Non-natural Concepts: The Role of Intuitive Conceptual Structures in Memory and Transmission of Cultural Materials

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The four experiments presented support Boyer's theory that counterintuitive concepts have transmission advantages that account for the commonness and ease of communicating many non-natural cultural concepts. In Experiment 1, 48 American college students recalled expectation-violating items from culturally unfamiliar folk stories better than more mundane items in the stories. In Experiment 2, 52 American college students in a modified serial reproduction task transmitted expectation-violating items in a written narrative more successfully than bizarre or common items. In Experiments 3 and 4, these findings were replicated with orally presented and transmitted stimuli, and found to persist even after three months. To sum, concepts with single expectation-violating features were more successfully transmitted than concepts that were entirely congruent with category-level expectations, even if they were highly unusual or bizarre. This transmission advantage for counterintuitive concepts may explain, in part, why such concepts are so prevalent across cultures and so readily spread.

Affiliations: 1: University of Michigan.

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