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The Spread of Non-Natural Concepts

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Pascal Boyer, Justin Barret and associates have recently developed precise and testable hypotheses about what makes a concept attention-demanding, easier to recall and therefore has increased probability of being transmitted. Two theses are tested: 1) that all else being equal counterintuitive concepts are better remembered than bizarre, and bizarre better than common; 2) that counterintuitive concepts containing certain templates, which involve the activation of theory of mind expectations should have greater success. The research so far has been in controlled experiments, but it should be possible to test the theses "in the wild". The evidence from the roman prodigy reports offers us such a possibility. It also enables us to check for variation across time, which hasn't been done before. Thesis 1) is confirmed, but not thesis 2). It is argued however that this is not a disconfirmation of Boyer's general thesis. By considering the context it is argued that it does not disconfirm the basic assumption of the theory. The evidence could suggest that when the "social inferential potential" of templates activating TOM expectations is not used it has no transmission advantage. It is also argued that the specific distribution shows that what is normally considered local cultural factors, have a real effect on what is transmitted.


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