Perspectives on Psychological Science
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Britain leaves the European Union. Donald Trump is
elected U.S. President. Hungary, Poland, Turkey (and
arguably the United States) move toward highly conser-
vative and, in some cases, semiauthoritarian systems of
government, a trend political scientists and commenta-
tors identify as a shift to illiberal democracies (O’Neil,
2015; Zakaria, 1997). In other societies where political
norms had been shifting in a more democratic direction,
the pendulum appears to swing back toward political
repression. Clearly, human cultures are not static. Not
only do political attitudes and norms change, but societ-
ies develop new technologies, many of which dramati-
cally influence how people work and live (i.e., the
automobile, the television, the internet). Social norms
and attitudes can shift in a matter of decades or years
(e.g., attitudes toward gay marriage in Western societies,
views on immigration in developed countries, and more
broadly norms regarding corporal punishment of chil-
dren). Institutions and political and economic systems
may change fairly quickly as well: Consider the end of
Apartheid in South Africa, the collapse of the Communist
regimes in Eastern Europe, the rise of ISIS in the Middle
East, or the ongoing shift toward illiberal democracies in
Why do such changes occur? In the past, the study of
cultural change has been mostly the domain of historians
and political scientists with shifts viewed as relatively
idiosyncratic or loosely linked with other social trends.
However, recent theoretical and methodological advances
have led to the emergence of more systematic and rigor-
ous approaches in psychology to understanding cultural
To study cultural change, psychologists have employed
a range of approaches. Until now, however, these approaches
have not been compared against each other, and few
attempts have been made to integrate the diverse meth-
odologies and theoretical viewpoints underpinning vari-
ous bodies of research on cultural change. Descriptive
research on cultural change has a history dating back to
the 1970s (Veroff, Douvan, & Kulka, 1981). Scholars have
documented cultural changes as a broad range of psy-
chological and behavioral patterns (e.g., Bond & Smith,
1996; Flynn, 1987; Inglehart & Baker, 2000). More recently,
699971PPSXXX10.1177/1745691617699971Varnum, GrossmannCultural Change
Michael E. W. Varnum, Arizona State University–Psychology, P.O. Box
871104, Tempe, AZ 85287.
Cultural Change: The How and the Why
Michael E. W. Varnum1 and Igor Grossmann2
1Arizona State University and 2University of Waterloo
More than half a century of cross-cultural research has demonstrated group-level differences in psychological and
behavioral phenomena, from values to attention to neural responses. However, cultures are not static, with several
specific changes documented for cultural products, practices, and values. How and why do societies change? Here
we juxtapose theory and insights from cultural evolution and social ecology. Evolutionary approaches enable
an understanding of the how of cultural change, suggesting transmission mechanisms by which the contents of
culture may change. Ecological approaches provide insights into the why of cultural change: They identify specific
environmental pressures, which evoke shifts in psychology and thereby enable greater precision in predictions of
specific cultural changes based on changes in ecological conditions. Complementary insights from the ecological and
cultural evolutionary approaches can jointly clarify the process by which cultures change. We end by discussing the
relevance of cultural change research for the contemporary societal shifts and by highlighting several critical challenges
and future directions for the emerging field of cross-temporal research on culture and psychology.
cultural change, cultural evolution, cultural transmission, culture/diversity, evoked responses, evolutionary psychology,
environment, behavioral ecology, history, language/communication, scientific methodology
2 Varnum, Grossmann
scholars have started to test ideas about how and why
cultures may change, building on theories of cultural evo-
lution and social ecology. We consider these approaches
to studying cultural change, outlining several connections
between them that generate novel insights into the pro-
cess of cultural change. Subsequently, we highlight cen-
tral questions and challenges for the future directions in
the emerging field of cultural change research.
Key Concepts for Research on Cultural
Change: Culture, Time, Ecology, and
Before we begin our review of the literature on cultural
change, it is important to reflect on several key concepts
often used when discussing this topic. First, it appears nec-
essary to provide a working definition of culture. Though
there are myriad definitions of culture (e.g., Bruner, 1990;
D’Andrade, 1984; Dimaggio, 1997; Grossmann & Na, 2014;
Shweder, 1991), we believe most share certain common-
alities including an emphasis on shared knowledge and
practices. For our purposes, we define culture as a set of
ideas, beliefs, norms, and behaviors shared by or com-
mon to a group inhabiting a geographic location (see
Human societies vary in a range of psychological and
behavioral tendencies. Scholars have observed cross-
cultural variations in processes ranging from visual illu-
sions to reasoning about the causes of others behavior
(Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). Further, a grow-
ing body of research has shown such differences exist not
only in downstream behavior and self-report but also in
neural responses (Han et al., 2013; Kitayama & Uskul,
2011). Thus, any understanding of the mind that does not
take culture into account is almost certain to be incomplete
(Henrich et al., 2010; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Nisbett,
Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001; Wang, 2016).
Second, it is important to consider the concept of time
in such research. Time is an abstract concept and often
functions as a proxy for other processes. To understand
this claim, consider several metaphors. On an individual
time scale, factors such as “age” can reflect biological
maturation, sociological shifts, adjustment of psychologi-
cal functioning, or a combination of these factors
(Wohlwill, 1970). Void of such processes, the notion of
“aging” appears to be meaningless. Similarly, change at
the level of an organization can reflect a change in the
organization’s revenues, shifts in organizational structure,
or the process through which certain outputs have been
achieved (Pettigrew, Woodman, & Cameron, 2001).
Though macrocultural processes are not identical to
those found on the level of an individual (Na et al., 2010)
or a small group (Pettigrew et al., 2001), the notion of
change on the cultural scale likely also concerns a multi-
tude of factors, including evolution of ideas, refinement
of practices, reactions to shifts in social-ecological affor-
dances, and so on. As we discuss below, unpacking tem-
poral changes in culture requires a rigorous evaluation of
theoretical and empirical links between shifts in particu-
lar cultural psychological variables and shifts in theorized
ecological and evolutionary factors believed to underpin
It is also noteworthy that different approaches to cul-
tural change tend to focus on changes occurring at some-
what different time scales (see Table 1). Cultural evolutionary
approaches tend to focus on millennia-long time scales in
theoretical work as well as on micro-time scales in exper-
iments. Ecological approaches to cultural change have so
far covered periods ranging from several decades to a
few centuries (for a detailed discussion of the study of
Table 1. Key Terms Defined
Culture A shared set of ideas, norms, and behaviors common to a group of people inhabiting a geographic
Cultural change Changes in ideas, norms, and behaviors of a group of people (or changes in the contents or themes of
their products reflecting such changes), over time, typically on the scale of decades or centuries.
Cultural evolution An approach to the study of cultural change emphasizing the role of evolutionary processes in the
development (both regarding a capacity for culture and specific cultural contents) and transmission of
Ecological approach An approach to understanding the causes of specific variations in culture across human societies, as
well as changes in culture over time within societies This approach emphasizes evolved responses to
particular ecological pressures or cues.
Ecological dimensions Basic features of the physical and social environment that cue adaptive psychological and or
behavioral responses. These features are mostly derived from behavioral ecology but may also be
considered to include certain intermediate features of human societies such as modes of subsistence
(see Table 2).
Cultural Change 3
cultural change at different time scales, see Kashima,
2014). Due to the pragmatic considerations of compiling
an evidence-based review, in the present piece we are
focusing on this latter time scale, given that the relevant
data at this level of granularity are most readily
The First Wave of Cross-Temporal
Research: Mapping Out Changes in
In the last few decades, psychologists, anthropologists,
and sociologists have begun to describe cross-temporal
variability in a wide range of psychological tendencies,
behaviors, practices, and products. Some of these inves-
tigations concerned shifts in dominant social orientations
toward individualism and collectivism. Other studies
have examined related psychological factors such as con-
formity, self-esteem, and narcissism. Moreover, there is
research on shifts in intelligence, social capital, and gen-
Individualism and collectivism
A substantial amount of initial descriptive work on cultural
change has also examined the concept of individualism-
collectivism. Individualism-collectivism can mean many
things (e.g., Greenfield, Keller, Fuligni, & Maynard, 2003;
Kag˘ıtçıbas¸ı, 1997; Kashima et al., 1995; Triandis, 1995,
1996). Here we specifically refer to an orientation in
which people view the self as autonomous and bounded
and prioritize individual goals and uniqueness (e.g.,
Keller, 2012). We refer to collectivism as an orientation in
which people view the self as interconnected with close
others and prioritize relationships and fitting in (Markus
& Kitayama, 1991; Varnum, Grossmann, Kitayama, &
Nisbett, 2010). At the group level (as compared to the
individual level), these dimensions are often used as oppo-
site poles of the same dimension (e.g., Na et al., 2010),
though there is also some evidence that these dimensions
can coexist on a macrolevel as well (e.g., Tamis-LeMonda
et al., 2008).
An early study in this line of research was a project
conducted by Veroff et al. (1981). The authors analyzed
nationwide mental health surveys between 1950 and
1970 and found substantial reductions in traditional (e.g.,
being married or not) and communal norms and an increase
in the values related to self-expression, self-direction, and
intimacy. Following this seminal work, more recent studies
documented an increase in the importance of self-
expression and greater emphasis on independence in
many societies around the world (Inglehart & Baker, 2000;
Santos, Varnum, & Grossmann, in press). Cultural change
in individualism and collectivism has also been studied by
examining shifts in products and practices (cf. Morling &
Lamoreaux, 2008). Researchers have observed a decrease
in the frequency of giving children popular names in the
United States and Japan (Grossmann & Varnum, 2015;
Ogihara et al., 2015; Twenge, Abebe, & Campbell, 2010),
decreases in rates of intergenerational living arrangements,1
and increases in divorce rates in the United States from the
1860s to the 2010s (Grossmann & Varnum, 2015), all of
which indicate rising levels of individualism. Similarly, the
last two centuries have seen an increase in the use of lan-
guage reflecting an individualist orientation in the body of
books published in the United States (Greenfield, 2013;
Grossmann & Varnum, 2015; Twenge et al., 2012, 2013), the
United Kingdom (Greenfield, 2013), and China (Hamamura &
Xu, 2015; Zeng & Greenfield, 2015).
It is also worth noting that in some societies, such as
Japan, rising individualism has also coincided with
increases in collectivism (Hamamura & Xu, 2015). This
may seem puzzling at first, as individualism would seem
to be linked to less collectivism. However, individualism-
collectivism may best be conceptualized as a multifac-
eted construct (e.g., Vignoles et al., 2016), such that some
aspects of individualism and collectivism may be orthog-
onal to each other. It may be the case that in a given
culture one may observe increases in some aspects of
individualism (i.e., self-expression) while observing a
simultaneous increase in psychological tendencies reflec-
tive of collectivism (i.e., external locus of control;
Twenge, Zhang, & Im, 2004). A fuller appreciation of
these diverging trends in individualism and collectivism
can benefit from a simultaneous examination of the rel-
evant social-ecological factors. For instance, social-eco-
logical pressures to perform well due to greater levels of
competition and lower prospects of finding a job may
both promote greater self-focus/individualism and simul-
taneously increase students’ dependence on the resources
in their social network. We will return to the role played
by ecological forces in cultural change in the following
An early meta-analysis conducted by Bond and Smith
(1996) has revealed that levels of conformity in experi-
mental settings have declined from the 1950s to the
1990s. Another cross-temporal meta-analysis found a
decrease in U.S. children’s self-esteem from 1965 to
1979 and an increase from 1980 to 1993 (Twenge &
Campbell, 2001). Moreover, researchers have observed
an increase in narcissism among U.S. American college
students from the 1950s to the 1990s (Roberts & Helson,
4 Varnum, Grossmann
1997; Twenge & Foster, 2008; Twenge, Konrath, Foster,
Keith Campbell, & Bushman, 2008), as well as increases
in illusory superiority among U.S. American college stu-
dents from the 1960s to the 2000s (Twenge, Campbell,
& Gentile, 2012a).
Cultural changes are not confined to social psychological
and personality processes. In fact, some countries have
seen a striking increase in fluid and crystallized intelli-
gence on standardized test scores from the 1930s until the
end of the 20th century. This phenomenon, known as the
Flynn Effect (Flynn, 1987; also see Thorndike, 1975), is
well documented and has been confirmed by several
meta-analyses (e.g., Pietschnig & Voracek, 2015; Raven,
2000; Trahan, Stuebing, Fletcher, & Hiscock, 2014). It is
also worth noting that increases in other types of abilities
have also been observed over the past century, especially
in the domain of athletic performance (Kaufman, 2013).
Another area in which cultural change has been docu-
mented is in levels of social capital. In seminal work,
Putnam (1995, 2000) has found declines in the United
States from the 1950s to the 2000s in a host of variables
that fall under the broad umbrella of social capital. These
variables include declining membership in voluntary
civic organizations (such as bowling leagues, adult frater-
nal orders, the red cross, the boy scouts), lower levels of
voter turnout, and declining trust in government. Putnam
hypothesizes a number of possible causes for declining
social capital, including increased geographic mobility,
increased female participation in the workforce, changes
in family structure, and a shift toward more individual
and solitary forms of entertainment (i.e., watching mov-
ies at home, playing video games, or in more recent
times, consuming entertainment online).
Finally, various scholars in the social sciences and
humanities have discussed dramatic cultural shifts toward
lower gender inequality in many societies. In most societ-
ies, women did not have the right to vote before the 20th
century. In the United States, women could not serve on
juries in many jurisdictions until well into the 20th cen-
tury (McDonald, 2011). In the United Kingdom, until the
latter part of the 19th century, husbands had control over
most of their wives’ property (including children) and
women had no right to vote until 1923 (Anthony & Kanu,
2012). These shifts are reflected not only in changes in
the legal rights afforded to women but also in attitudes
and cultural products. For example, large-scale survey
data show that there has been a marked increase in sup-
port for gender equality from the 1960s to the 2000s in
the United States (Thornton & Young-DeMarco, 2001).
Similarly, meta-analysis data on the Attitudes Towards
Women Scale gathered from American college students
show increased support for feminist ideas among both
women and men from the 1970s to the mid-1990s
(Twenge, 1997). Further, from the 1960s to the 2000s, the
proportion of female to male pronouns in American
books increased as well (Twenge, Campbell, & Gentile,
2012b). Rising support for gender equality has been found
not only in the United States but also in other countries
(e.g., Varnum & Grossmann, 2016), suggesting it may be
a global phenomenon (Inglehart & Welzel, 2005).
Distinct Approaches to
Cultural Change Research?
The descriptive research has provided valuable evidence
that cultural changes have occurred. However, such map-
ping does not explain why changes occur. Nor do exam-
ples of cultural change have any predictive power to
forecast the direction and magnitude of future cultural
changes. To do so requires theoretical frameworks
grounded in an understanding of how cultures evolve
and which ecological pressures may cause change to
occur. In other words, one needs to understand the how
and the why of cultural change, which we examine next.
The how: The cultural
Many researchers who adopt an evolutionary framework
have focused on understanding the mechanisms through
which cultural change, writ large, may occur. Much
research on cultural evolution takes as its starting point
the notion that the development of cultural contents may
be analogous to the biological evolution, with reproduc-
tion occurring through the transmission of information
rather than genes (Campbell, 1965; Dawkins, 1976).
It is worth noting that memetic accounts of cultural
evolution have been widely criticized, with some ques-
tioning the notion of memes as discrete replicators and
the importance of high-fidelity transmission in cultural
evolution (i.e. Boyd & Richerson, 1988; Sperber, 1998).
Further, other theories, such as dual inheritance theory
(Boyd & Richerson, 1988), give more emphasis to interac-
tions between cultural and biological evolutionary pro-
cesses. In another vein, Sperber’s (1998) epidemiological
approach to cultural evolution emphasizes the impor-
tance of understanding cognitive processes. Furthermore,
it highlights the role of human-made changes to and
interaction with the physical environment in the spread
Cultural Change 5
of ideas. Despite such disagreements, the general idea
that evolutionary principles can help us to understand
cultural change is at the core of research in cultural
Frameworks from cultural evolution yield insights into
information transmission processes that enable cultural
change. Human transmission of information is often
biased. Consider the classic study by Bartlett (1932) on
“serial reproduction” of short stories. Participants were
presented with an unfamiliar story and were asked to
recall the story and repeat it to another participant. When
looking at the quality of reproduction, Bartlett famously
observed a set of systematic distortion biases, including
assimilation with culturally typical expectations and
norms, leveling of the story by omitting information seen
as not essential, and sharpening of the story by chang-
ing the order of the study in line with culture-typical
expectations. Since this seminal work, theoretical and
empirical work on cultural evolution has demonstrated a
set of broad biases contributing to cultural evolution via
information transmission, including conformity bias (the
tendency to copy others or adopt their ideas if such
behaviors or ideas are widely spread), the prestige bias
(the tendency to copy others or adopt their ideas if those
others are high in status) (Boyd & Richerson, 1988), self-
similarity bias (the tendency to copy others who share
one’s characteristics or group memberships) (Chudek,
Muthukrishna, & Henrich, 2015), and innovation (i.e.,
creation of new ideas, tools, or behaviors, which are then
selectively copied by others (Henrich, 2001). Cultural
evolution may also occur via other routes, including
group-level mechanisms such as cultural group selection
(Richerson et al., 2016).
The cultural evolutionary perspective has also shed
light on what kinds of information may be more versus
less likely to be remembered and transmitted (for an
extensive review, see Conway & Schaller, 2007). What fea-
tures of information enable its successful transmission?
One such feature is the extent to which information has a
bearing on one’s survival. Threat-relevant trait information
is easier to communicate (Schaller, Faulkner, Park, Neuberg,
& Kenrick, 2004), and urban legends that evoke disgust are
more likely to be communicated than others (Heath, Bell,
& Sternberg, 2001). Information that is relevant for child-
rearing also appears to enjoy a particular bias. For exam-
ple, the so-called Mozart effect, the discredited notion that
playing Mozart to children enhances their intelligence,
received an inordinate amount of media attention com-
pared to other scientific notions, and mentions of the
effect appear linked to times of heightened societal con-
cern regarding child development (Bangerter & Heath,
Another feature that makes information more likely
to be successfully transmitted is if it is minimally
counterintuitive. Minimally counterintuitive stories (those
containing two to three ontological violations) have been
shown to enjoy better recall and high rates of transmission
than those that contain no ontological violations or that
include too many (Norenzayan, Atran, Faulkner, & Schaller,
2006). Why might this be? It turns out that information that
stands out, by for example contradicting our stereotypes
or lay theories of physics, tends to grab our attention and
is better recalled, but so too is information that fits with
our preexisting schemas (Conway & Schaller, 2007). Thus,
such stories may be especially memorable as they take
advantage of both of these biases. However, it is worth
noting that when narratives contain both schema-consistent
and -inconsistent information that is contradictory (i.e.,
both stereotype-consistent and -inconsistent information
about individuals), although the schema-inconsistent
information is initially more likely to be successfully
transmitted, further in the chain of transmission the pat-
tern shifts such that schema-consistent information is
what is ultimately retained (Kashima, 2000).
Cultural evolution has also helped to explain why par-
ticular cultural contents may have developed. Consider
three examples: the evolution of honor culture, the emer-
gence of “big gods,” and cultural evolution of strong ver-
sus weak social norms. The culture of honor, which
involves extreme retaliation in response to insult or
aggression, is a puzzle from an evolutionary framework
given the high costs involved. Nowak et al. (2016)
recently used agent-based modeling to test Nisbett and
Cohen’s (1996) hypothesis that honor cultures are the
product of environments with harsh conditions paired
with weak and unreliable institutions. Nowak et al.’s sim-
ulations suggest that honor may prevent unbridled aggres-
sion when institutions are weak and unreliable. Conversely,
rational and self-interested norms are more likely to develop
when institutions are strong.
The cultural evolutionary framework can also help us
to understand the emergence of large-scale religions with
very powerful deities, whom Norenzayan (2013) charac-
terized as “big gods.” Norenzayan (2013) drew together
several lines of evidence that support the notion that “big
gods” facilitate better cooperation within groups and
enable larger group sizes, which in turn gives groups
with bigger gods a competitive advantage over those
with smaller gods. How might bigger gods accomplish
this? All-seeing gods may motivate people to behave
morally in the absence of other types of surveillance
more effectively than smaller gods may. Bigger gods may
also encourage costlier signaling behavior, which may
help attract converts, leading to a larger group size. Also,
bigger gods may facilitate fictive kinship, promoting sac-
rifice and altruism within groups even when genetic relat-
edness is low (Norenzayan et al., 2016). Further, a belief
in such deities can increase the likelihood of prosocial
6 Varnum, Grossmann
behavior toward strangers who are co-religionists even if
they are geographically distant (Purzycki et al., 2016).
Finally, the cultural evolutionary approach can be use-
ful for understanding how societies develop strong or
weak social norms. In societies where there are more
threats (e.g., war, pathogens), social norms tend to be
stronger, punishments more severe for deviance, and
adherence to the rules more frequent (Gelfand et al.,
2011). Recent work using agent-based modeling has con-
firmed these results, demonstrating that stronger norms
in a variety of settings (cooperation, coordination) evolve
when levels of threat are high (Roos, Gelfand, Nau, &
Lun, 2015). The results of these simulations suggest that
stronger norms facilitate social coordination.
Beyond shedding light on the development of distinct
sets of cultural values or behaviors in a given society or
region, cultural evolution can also be used to explain the
emergence of human tendencies at the species level,
such as cooperation (Boyd & Richerson, 2009) and fair-
ness (Rand, Tarnita, Ohtsuki, & Nowak, 2013). For exam-
ple, using a combination of simulations and experiments,
Rand and colleagues (2013) provide evidence that under
conditions of relatively weak selection, uncertainty could
have led to the evolution of fairness. Based on data from
computer simulations and experiments, researchers have
also proposed that the evolution of indirect reciprocity,
as a way to build and manage one’s reputation, can con-
tribute to altruistic tendencies among our species (Nowak
& Sigmund, 2005).
The cultural evolutionary approach provides insight
into how certain general human capacities may have
evolved and mechanisms that enable cultural transmis-
sion and has provided some insight into the development
of specific cultural features (both regarding variations
and writ large). It has been argued that communication
alone is sufficient for understanding the development of
culture (e.g., Latané, 1996) and presumably for under-
standing patterns of cultural change and that many types
of cultural changes may occur through cultural evolution-
ary mechanisms without regard to environmental pres-
sures (e.g., Henrich, 2001). Thus, some might argue that,
in fact, this approach answers questions not only about
how but also about why cultural changes (including spe-
cific changes) occur. However, we suspect that many
kinds of cultural changes along dimensions of interest to
psychologists are at least in part responses to ecological
changes. We believe it may not be possible to accurately
predict patterns of cultural change in many variables
without some knowledge of the relevant ecological con-
ditions and the adaptive responses that such conditions
typically entail. Group selection, biases in transmission
mechanisms, and gene-culture coevolution are all useful
ideas for understanding the process of cultural change
writ large, but on their own, they do not readily enable
predictions regarding whether say individualism, gender
equality, violence, or racism in a given country will be
higher or lower in 10 years time. Often this is precisely
what scholars, policy makers, and lay people wish to
know, and ultimately the goal of a psychology of cultural
change should be to produce a predictive science.
Although some researchers studying cultural evolution
have explicitly incorporated ecology into their models
(e.g., Nowak et al., 2016; Roos et al., 2015), to date such
work has largely not used empirical data, limiting the
power to draw possible inferences. In the next section,
we turn our attention to emerging empirical work that
has used an ecological framework to explain specific pat-
terns of cultural change.
The why: The ecological approach
The ecological approach to studying cultural change is
grounded in ideas from behavioral ecology (Davies,
Krebs, & West, 2012), which takes as its starting point the
notion that different ecological affordances and con-
straints lead to distinct patterns of behaviors, values, and
norms that have historically been adaptive under such
circumstances. This work is also grounded in the notion
of inclusive fitness, which holds that organisms (includ-
ing humans) have evolved to behave in ways that increase
the likelihood that their genes will be transmitted even if
such transmission is indirect (Hamilton, 1964). In this
vein, it has been proposed that humans possess psycho-
logical adaptations that predispose them to acquire ele-
ments of culture (ideas, tools, dialects, preferences for
certain qualities in mates, etc.) that increase their inclu-
sive fitness (or did so ancestrally) in response to the pres-
ence of particular ecological conditions (Gangestad,
Haselton, & Buss, 2006; Schaller & Murray, 2011; Thorn-
hill & Fincher, 2014). Ecological dimensions such as
resource scarcity/abundance, pathogen prevalence, and
population density have been linked to variations in
behavior among nonhuman animals (Agnew, Koella, &
Michalakis, 2000; Collins & Cheek, 1983; Davies et al.,
2012; Forsgren, Amundsen, Borg, & Bjelvenmark, 2004)
and also have been associated with systematic variations
in parallel behavior across human societies (i.e., Sng,
Neuberg, Varnum, & Kenrick, 2017; Thornhill & Fincher,
2014; Van de Vliert, 2013).
In this approach to cultural change, predictions linking
changes in ecological pressures to certain kinds of cul-
tural change are largely derived from research that seeks
to explain variations across human societies based on
ecology (Table 2). This approach does not imply that eco-
logical approaches are confined to theoretical frameworks
based on behavioral ecology. Other ecological approaches
in cultural psychology have focused on such dimensions as
residential mobility (Oishi, 2014) or means of subsistence
Cultural Change 7
(Talhelm et al., 2014; Uskul, Kitayama, & Nisbett, 2008) to
explain patterns of cultural variation. Such variables con-
ceivably contribute to cultural change but have not so far
been the primary focus of theorizing in ecologically
focused approaches to cultural change.
Studies using this approach typically contrast several
theoretically derived ecological predictors and assess
their relative effects on levels of a psychological or behav-
ioral tendency (or cultural products that may be a corre-
late of such trends) over time within a society. Going
back to the examples of individualism and collectivism,
Grossmann and Varnum (2015) compared the effect of
shifts along a variety of ecological dimensions (including
pathogens, climate, density, and socioeconomic status
[SES]) on levels of individualism versus collectivism in the
United States over a period of 150 years and found stron-
gest support for the role of increasing levels of occupa-
tional status (a factor related to resource scarcity/
abundance). Further, time-lagged analyses established
that changes in levels of occupational status led to
changes in individualism rather than the other way
around. Similar links have also been shown when exam-
ining the relationship between unemployment rates and
levels of individualism during the time of the first eco-
nomic recession in the 21st century, such that individualism
is higher in the United States when unemployment levels
are lower (Bianchi, 2016). Notably, the relationship
between socioeconomic factors and individualism is not
restricted to the United State. Conceptually similar find-
ings emerged in a study of changes in values and prac-
tices reflecting individualism in 77 societies over the
course of the second half of the 20th century, with the
strongest effect observed for socioeconomic develop-
ment (Santos et al., in press). In the majority of societies
included in the sample, levels of individualism increased
nonnegligibly over time. This effect appeared to be
driven by increasing socioeconomic development. Over-
all, these findings are consistent with the idea that
increases in the abundance of resources reduce people’s
need to rely on others and favor a focus on individual
goals. A similar approach documented changes in expres-
sions of contempt over the course of the 20th century in
American cultural products. This research found that
shifts in markers related to the ecological dimension of
scarcity/abundance (including unemployment and SES
levels) were bidirectionally linked to decreases in the
prevalence of contempt (Varnum & Grossmann, in press).
Further, an ecological approach has also been used to
understand changes in gender equality (Varnum &
Grossmann, 2016). Increases in levels of gender equality
Table 2. Ecological Pressures and Evoked Responses
Ecological pressure/affordance Evoked response Evidence of link in humans
Pathogen prevalence Slow vs. fast life history strategies
Hill, Boehm, & Prokosch, 2016
Gangestad et al., 2006
Fincher & Thornhill, 2012; Thornhill & Fincher, 2014
Thornhill & Fincher, 2011
Fincher & Thornhill, 2012
Gelfand et al., 2011
Population density Slow vs. fast life history strategies
Sng, Neuberg, Varnum, & Kenrick, 2017
Sng et al., 2017
Resource scarcity/abundance Slow vs. fast life history strategies
Contempt vs. tolerance
Griskevicius et al., 2013
Grossmann & Varnum, 2015; Santos et al., in press
Varnum & Grossmann, in press
Resource inequality Aggression Krems & Varnum, in press
Sex ratio Aggression
Krems & Varnum, in press
Stone, Shackelford, & Buss, 2006
Threat (i.e., wars, external conflict) Aggression
White et al., 2012
White et al., 2012
Gelfand et al., 2011
Mode of subsistence Analytic vs. holistic cognitive style
Uskul et al., 2008
Talhelm et al., 2014
Frontier settlement Analytic vs. holistic cognitive style
Kitayama et al., 2006
Kitayama et al., 2010
Varnum & Kitayama, 2011; Varnum, 2012, 2013
Residential mobility Individualism-collectivism
Note: Rows above the dashed line contain linkages derived from behavioral ecology and are largely observed across species. Rows below the
dashed line contain linkages derived from social ecology.
8 Varnum, Grossmann
(including changes in wage parity, female representation
in government, female pronoun use in books, and atti-
tudes regarding gender) in both the United States and
Britain from the 1950s to the 2010s appear to be driven
by decreases in the prevalence of infectious diseases over
time, an effect which is in part mediated by a shift toward
slower life history strategies. Of note, these effects were
not mediated by changes in individualism-collectivism
during this period and were only weakly related to
changes in levels of unemployment, suggesting that
changes in gender equality may be orthogonal to changes
in individualism-collectivism and are driven by different
types of ecological pressures.
In summary, by testing the association between
changes in major dimensions of ecology with cultural
changes in variables like individualism, contempt, and
gender equality, the ecological approach not only pro-
vides insight into the how of cultural change but also may
enable us to understand the why—that is, knowledge
about the role of ecological factors in promoting specific
cultural shifts in a particular temporal order. Beyond
describing and explaining past variations in psychologi-
cal processes linked to individualism and gender equal-
ity, insight from these studies enables us to make informed
predictions regarding how future shifts in the ecology of
a given society might affect changes in such variables.
Thus, the ecological approach has the potential to turn
the study of cultural change into a predictive (as opposed
to a descriptive) enterprise.
Combining the cultural evolutionary
and ecological approaches
Up to this point, we have described distinct approaches
to understanding the mechanisms promoting cultural
change, including the cultural evolutionary and ecologi-
cal approaches. Descriptive work on cross-temporal
research has provided numerous existence proofs of cul-
tural changes in psychology. Psychological processes are
not static; understanding of how such processes change
with the culture over time have fundamental insights for
getting a fuller theoretical and methodological picture
about the human condition. However, a mere description
of cultural changes has limited utility going forward. It
does not enable a shift toward a predictive science of
cultural change, nor does it provide rigorous insight into
the causes and mechanisms enabling such changes.
Below we consider some ways in which cultural evolu-
tionary and ecological approaches may be combined to
yield new insight into the science of cultural change.
Before doing so, we should note some early attempts to
combine ideas from the cultural evolution tradition and
the ecological tradition (Nowak et al., 2016; Oishi,
Kesebir, Eggleston, & Miao, 2014; Roos et al., 2015). We
hope to encourage further attempts along these lines and
offer several ways in which cultural evolution and eco-
logical approaches may be combined to yield new
Cultural evolution provides mechanisms for the
impact of ecological pressures. So far, the emerging
literature on how ecological shifts may lead to cultural
changes has been relatively agnostic regarding the paths
by which such changes take place. At the individual level,
ecological cues like pathogens or density have been
shown to lead to evoked responses. Thus, one possibility
is that ecological threats and affordances lead to cultural
change largely through the aggregation of such responses.
Further, direct effects of ecological pressures on cultural
change may occur due to interactions between such fac-
tors. For instance, it is possible that pathogens play a big-
ger role for cultural change in individualism-collectivism
or traditionalism in poorer regions with warmer climates
as compared to more developed regions with colder cli-
mates. Along similar lines, regional variations in dominant
modes of production (e.g., rice vs. wheat production;
Talhelm et al., 2014) likely result in different interpersonal
relations in regions in which agricultural production is the
primary basis of the economy (or has been so recently).
However, such effects may become less evident if there
are dramatic increases in overall resource levels. In short,
ecological pressures likely act in a multiplicative fashion.
Though this idea has been implied in much prior research,
it has not been sufficiently explored empirically, in part
due to limited cross-temporal data available to estimate
such complex models.
In addition to these direct paths to cultural change, the
links between ecology and cultural change could also be
indirect, operating through cultural transmission. Thus,
one area in which cultural evolution may inform research
using the ecological approach will be to help identify the
relative contributions of evoked and transmitted responses
to cultural change in response to particular environmen-
tal pressures. We suspect that one way in which ecologi-
cal shifts may lead to cultural change first is by first
eliciting behavioral and psychological responses in indi-
viduals, which in turn are transmitted to others, ultimately
leading to changes in the values, attitudes, products, and
practices of society.
Although cultural evolution may primarily operate
through relatively high-fidelity transmission (e.g., Lewis
& Laland, 2012), cultural change need not always occur
through high-fidelity transmission. To some extent, cul-
tural contents, like genes, may also change in ways that
are not necessarily adaptive responses to the environ-
ment but rather reflect low-fidelity transmission (Heine,
2015). One can think of the “telephone game” studies
similar to those utilized by Bartlett (1932) and Kashima
Cultural Change 9
(2000) when assessing the serial reproduction of verbally
communicated information. Typically, in such studies,
there is a fair amount of variation between the initial
information and the information that is transmitted to the
last individual in a communication chain. Some of these
variations are systematic, but others are random error. It
is plausible then that at least some types of cultural
changes in human societies may essentially be due to
random mutation during the process of information
transmission. Thus, it will also be important to account
for the role of fidelity of information transmission in
future work that seeks to understand how changes in
ecological pressures lead to specific forms of cultural
change. This may help to ensure that correlational rela-
tionships observed between ecological factors and cul-
tural changes are not spurious. What might this look like
in practice? One possible approach may be comparing the
results of laboratory experiments manipulating ecological
cues and observing the effects of such manipulations on
transmission of theoretically related cultural contents with
the results experiments in which fidelity of information
transmission regarding the same cultural contents is mea-
sured without an ecological manipulation or by using simu-
lations to estimate the relative effects that are due to
ecological pressures versus noisy information transmission.
Ecological pressures favor different transmission
mechanisms. Another possible way in which ecologi-
cal and cultural evolutionary processes may interact is
that ecological pressures may differentially support
various means of cultural transmission, which would
differentially impact retaining, transmitting, or receiving
information (e.g., Conway & Schaller, 2007) and thereby
produce unique paths to cultural change.
For example, some studies suggest that higher levels
of pathogens are linked to higher levels of conformity
(Murray et al., 2011, 2012). Conformity has been posited
as an adaptive response to high-pathogen environments,
as all other things being equal, it should reduce one’s
chance of contracting infectious diseases (Schaller &
Murray, 2011). Thus, one might predict that in places and
times where infectious disease loads are high, confor-
mity bias may play a stronger role in information trans-
mission than prestige bias. Prestige bias, in turn, might
seem particularly relevant in conditions of resource scar-
city. Thus, when resources are scarce, people may be
more likely to imitate others who are successful (i.e.,
high in status) than the majority, as high-status others’
behavior may provide clues as to how to best acquire and
hold resources, something that would be a more pressing
concern when such resources are in short supply. Thus, in
times when resources are scarce, people may be more
susceptible to the prestige bias than to other types of
biases in imitation and information transmission.
One might also predict that self-similarity bias might
be stronger in some circumstances than in others. For
example, we suspect that this bias may trump others dur-
ing times of conflict between societies, as such events
make in-group/out-group boundaries highly salient.
Hence, we would predict that when societies are at war
self-similarity bias should be a more likely route of cul-
tural transmission than prestige or conformity biases. As
these examples illustrate, the ecological approach might
help scholars to develop a more fine-tuned understand-
ing of when various types of cultural transmission are
more likely to take place.
From cultural change to ecological change. Eco-
logical and cultural evolutionary approaches may also
be combined to address the processes by which changes
in societies lead to changes in their ecologies. This
possibility is acknowledged by scholars of cultural evo-
lution (e.g., Richerson & Boyd, 2000) and has been the-
orized about by psychological scientists studying social
ecology. For example, Oishi (2014) suggested that
human psychological tendencies may give rise to niche
construction, which may explain the proliferation of
chain stores in regions with high residential mobility
(reflecting a desire for familiarity in an unfamiliar ecol-
ogy) and the popularity of headphones in places with
high population density (indicating a desire for personal
space in a dense environment). Thus, humans may
attempt to modify their ecologies to suit their psycho-
logical needs. One might imagine then that as cultural
changes occur in such needs, one might see different
types of attempts to change the ecological conditions of
Further, evidence of bidirectional relationships between
ecological shifts and cultural changes suggests that there
may be instances of bidirectional causality or feedback
loops. For example, the finding that changes in scarcity
and contempt are bidirectionally related (Varnum &
Grossmann, in press) might indicate not only that increas-
ing resource abundance decreases intolerance but also
that greater levels of tolerance and a dignity culture pro-
mote economic development (Florida, 2014). Such feed-
back loops may, in fact, be common and might be more
evident on larger time scales. Notably, a full description
of such loops involves cultural transmission processes.
Different cultural values and tendencies may cause peo-
ple to attend, encode, and transmit various types of infor-
mation (Henrich et al., 2010). This process may also lead
societies to modify their environments in ways that may
be consistent with those values and habits (Miyamoto,
Nisbett, & Masuda, 2006). Thus, it stands to reason that as
cultural contents change, this may lead societies to mod-
ify their ecologies. In short, certain types of information
regarding desirable ecological conditions or modes of
10 Varnum, Grossmann
transmitting such information may vary as a function of a
On a related note, societies often attempt to engage in
intentional ecological engineering, trying to change their
ecology from the top down (e.g., reforestation efforts,
enforced or encouraged migration to urban or rural
areas). The study of such efforts has largely been the
domain of political scientists and historians, but it would
be worthwhile for psychologists to begin to think about
how to account for these types of influences in their
models of cultural change. Cultural evolutionary frame-
works may be especially useful here, as they can provide
us with insight regarding when top-down versus bottom-
up modes of transmission aimed at changing society’s
ecology may be more effective.
The Future of Cultural
There are several important considerations for the field of
cultural change research as it goes forward. Here we out-
line several key issues to be addressed in future cultural
change research, including areas for future theory build-
ing and key methodological challenges.
Cultural susceptibility to change
There are possible features of societies that facilitate or
impede cultural change. The extent to which society has
tight versus loose social norms, whether society is ethni-
cally homogeneous versus heterogeneous, or whether
society is relatively isolated versus in frequent contact
with other cultures all may affect the degree to which its
culture is stable versus malleable. One might imagine, for
example, that relatively isolated communities would have
more stable values and norms over time. One might also
posit that tighter societies would be less likely to change,
as there is less variability among their members in atti-
tudes and behaviors and less tolerance for deviance
(Gelfand et al., 2011; Uz, 2015). On the other hand, such
societies might respond more quickly to dramatic ecologi-
cal changes as they are better able to enforce norms and
as people may be more likely to change if their leaders
adopt new values or practices. One might make similar
competing predictions regarding ethnic homogeneity, as
in more diverse societies there may be a greater variety of
beliefs and practices, making change more likely, but on
the other hand, in more diverse societies, the adoption of
new attitudes, values, or practices may be more uneven,
leading to slower change for the society as a whole. Thus,
testing potential moderators will be another important
future direction in the study of cultural change.
Nonlinearity and time span of change
Many of the phenomena described in this review have
changed in a relatively linear fashion during the time
periods covered in these studies. However, it seems likely
that cultural change is often nonlinear or potentially
cyclical. It may be that data from broader spans of time
than a few decades or one to two centuries are necessary
to observe such cycles. Hence, an important project for
the psychological science of cultural change will be to
find sources of systematic data on variables of interest
over longer time spans. Notably, insights from the study
of cultural evolution may also be particularly useful in
addressing this question, as the properties of cultural
transmission are likely key to understanding nonlinear
forms of cultural change.
An empirical study of longer term forms of cultural
change can be challenging. Consider the recent contro-
versy over the cultural change in violence. Pinker (2011)
proposed that there have been substantial cultural changes
in levels of violence over time. In his view, a decline in
violence, including a reduction in armed conflict, not only
has occurred over the past several decades but also has
been continuous over the course of millennia. Cirillo and
Taleb (2016) recently tested this claim with the help of
formal statistical analysis of data on war casualties from 1
AD to 2015 and failed to find evidence of a decline in the
frequency of large-scale conflicts or in the number of
casualties from conflict over time. It appears that on a
larger time scale, violence rates have been mostly stable.
At the same time, when zeroing in on specific geographic
regions, there appears to be clear evidence for a dramatic
reduction in violence: Over the past 50 years, the United
States has experienced a dramatic reduction in homicide
rates (FBI, Crime in the United States, 2015, 2015).
Through empirical analyses, it is therefore possible to
obtain a nuanced perspective concerning the location and
temporal dimension of change in such psychological phe-
nomena as violence. Notably, at present, researchers
interested in studying change over long periods of time
are mostly confined to more indirect measures (such as
cultural practices and products or estimates by historians),
some of which may be of poor quality. The study of cul-
tural change over longer spans of time will likely be an
easier endeavor in the future, as there is a growing body
of data on psychological measures that will be available
as well as higher quality archival data on variables like
crime rates, marriage and divorce, and voting behavior.
The validity of big data
Research exploring cultural evolution has primarily used
simulations as a methodology to test theories regarding
Cultural Change 11
how information transmission may lead to cultural change.
As big data from Facebook, Twitter, wearable sensors,
geospatial movement patterns, and other large-scale
sources become increasingly available for use in social
science research, such data may enable real-world tests of
information transmission and behavioral theories con-
cerning cultural change. Rich, large-scale data on the
transfer of ideas and behaviors in combination with data
on shifts in ecology will enable a clearer understanding of
the relationship between evoked and transmitted culture.
Methodological innovations also lead to unique chal-
lenges. As an example, recent advances in the availability
of massive word frequency corpora from Google Books
(Michel et al., 2011) led some scientists to conduct large-
scale content analyses of word use patterns over time
(e.g., Greenfield, 2013; Grossmann & Varnum, 2015;
Twenge et al., 2012b). Some of these analyses have been
restricted to the United States, yet others aimed to use the
Google Books data to compare frequencies across cul-
tures (e.g., Uz, 2014), by using books written in different
languages. Notably, Google books frequency data are
based on corpora from the U.S. National Library of Con-
gress and several university libraries (e.g., the University
of California and the University of Michigan). The non-
English books in these libraries are subject to dramatic
selection bias, casting some doubt on the validity of
cross-cultural inferences regarding cultural change made
based on corpora of non-English-speaking societies.
Accounting for temporal
One of the biggest challenges for cross-temporal big data
research on cultural change concerns potentially spuri-
ous associations between different ecological forces (and
their cultural transmission) and change in cultural psy-
chological variables of interest over time. For instance,
consider the situation in which one visually observes that
the pattern of change in the use of certain words in books
published in a given country (e.g., “choose” vs. “obey”)
seems similar to the pattern of change in percentage of a
country’s population living in urban versus rural areas
over the same span of time (e.g., Greenfield, 2013). Does
this mean that urbanization caused a shift toward greater
individualist versus collectivist word use? Unfortunately,
cross-temporal data do not allow one to draw such con-
clusions, as the association between these variables could
be due to a third variable—the degree to which each
variable changes over time. In other words, two variables
may appear to be strongly related solely because each
shows a temporal trend. Autocorrelations of each vari-
able can cause this problem. Autocorrelation refers to a
correlation of a given variable from one point in time to
another at lag k over the time series. When similar auto-
correlation is present in both variables, they may seem
associated over time. Such autocorrelation raises serious
challenges for interpreting relationships in time-series
data. High levels of autocorrelation can lead to amusing
“associations,” such as the visually striking associations
between the marriage rate in the U.S. state of Kentucky
and the number of fishing boat deaths in the United States
or the number of sociology doctorates awarded in the
United States and the rate of worldwide noncommercial
space launches (Vigen, 2015). Of course, these associa-
tions are merely spurious. Thus, when exploring the fac-
tors contributing to cultural change, it is critical to evaluate
and possibly control for temporal autocorrelations.
So far, psychological scientists have not been vigilant
in controlling for autocorrelations in cross-temporal data
on cultural change. Some exceptions have included the
use of lagged associations (such as cross-correlation
functions) and the so-called test of Granger causality
(Granger, 1969), which provides a formal way within the
linear regression model to evaluate the idea previously
proposed by Wiener (1956). In this test, one aims to pre-
dict Yt + 1 using the past terms of Y, as well as the past
terms of X. If the addition of the past term of X suffi-
ciently improves the predictive power of Yt + 1 above the
past term of Y alone, one can claim that the X Granger
causes Y. Some researchers studying cultural change
have begun to apply these methods when examining
relationships between ecological factors and cultural
change (e.g., Grossmann & Varnum, 2015). However, this
approach does not provide a definite test of causality.
Another approach to accounting for temporal autocorre-
lations can involve a model comparison between the
hypothesized model with two time series for predictor
(X) and outcome (Y) of cultural change with a baseline
distribution, in which one simulates a similar degree of
autocorrelation as observed empirically in X and Y,
respectively (Tiokhin & Hruschka, 2017). This approach
allows for a corrected threshold for significance that
accounts statistically for the likelihood that an observed
association between the two sets of time series data is
due to autocorrelation. Additional sophisticated methods
for dealing with autocorrelations have been proposed in
econometrics, and psychologists interested in cultural
change may be well advised to consult such literature for
further guidance (e.g., Nakamura, Nakamura, & Orcutt,
Toward a “psychohistory”
Another way of dealing with the potential pitfalls of data-
sets high in autocorrelation would be to show that mod-
els derived from such data reasonably predict the future.
12 Varnum, Grossmann
As noted earlier, research on cultural change regardless
of its approach has essentially been a postdictive science
to date. However, the ultimate promise of a science of
cultural change is not to give us a clearer understanding
of the past (although this is a lofty goal in and of itself),
but rather to enable us to predict how societies will look
in the future. The authors of this work read Asimov’s
“Foundation” novels as children, and in many ways, their
work on cultural change was inspired by his fictive sci-
ence of “psychohistory,” in which cultural trends and
events on a large scale could be predicted decades and
even thousands of years in advance (Asimov, 1951). Due
to recent advances, such a science no longer seems so
much like science fiction. A genuine test of models devel-
oped by cultural evolutionary and ecological approaches
will be the extent to which they can accurately predict
future levels of critical sociocultural variables like gender
equality, altruism, or individualism. Although the preci-
sion of Asimov’s fictional discipline is likely impossible to
attain, we eventually may be able to predict large-scale
cultural trends with some degree of accuracy.
As the science of cultural change is a new endeavor, it
may require not only different methods but also different
ways of disseminating findings than have been typical in
psychology. We would advocate that researchers begin to
publish their models as well as their predictions for the
future (say for at least one to two decades) given a range
of ecological inputs when they publish papers explaining
past patterns of cultural change. We would then advocate
that journals that publish such work also be willing to
accept follow-up work that assesses the fit between values
predicted by the model and actual values that occur in the
future. In a sense, this would constitute a kind of preregis-
tration for papers on cultural change. This approach would
help strengthen inferences regarding theories for why cul-
tural changes occur and would help motivate researchers
to look forward as well as backward.
Cultural change in the meaning of
Finally, research on cultural change can yield unique psy-
chological insights about the validity of various measures
of psychological processes. So far, much research on cul-
tural change has treated the attributes of extant cultural
concepts, including individualism/collectivism, social
capital, or gender inequality, as rather uniform over time.
However, it is an empirical question whether the psycho-
logical meaning of such concepts remain constant or
change as well. Addressing this issue adequately would
require cross-temporal study of the nomological network
(Cronbach & Meehl, 1955) of the relevant cultural con-
struct and examining if and how the psychological struc-
ture of the construct changes over time. For instance, one
might consider whether shifts in individualism have been
equally linked to mental health factors (e.g., Roberts &
Helson, 1997; Veroff et al., 1981), and whether such
cross-temporal association varies across societies (e.g.,
Ogihara & Uchida, 2014).
Additionally, the study of potential cultural changes in
the nature of psychological phenomena can shed new
light on the reliability and validity of these phenomena
over time, including such fundamental phenomena as
emotions (Ellsworth, 1994), prejudice and racism (e.g.,
Schuman, 1997), morality, and wisdom (e.g., Grossmann,
in press). Finally, in the context of assessing the robust-
ness of psychological effects, the temporal dimension
should be taken seriously as a potential explanation for
variation in observed effect sizes across studies. For
example, consider the observed reduction in effect sizes
of conformity over several studies using the classic Ash
paradigm (Bond & Smith, 1996). This reduction could
reflect the overestimation of the original effect size. Alter-
natively, it could reflect the cultural change in the strength
and/or meaning of conformity over time.
Finally, researchers who study culture using cross-
sectional data often implicitly assume relative stability.
However, given evidence of cultural shifts at the level of
decades, such an approach may be problematic. For
instance, consider the dimensional ranking of countries by
Hofstede and colleagues (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov,
2010) on power distance, individualism/collectivism, mas-
culinity/femininity, uncertainty avoidance, long- versus
short-term orientation, and temporal restraint. Hofstede’s
initial study was conducted in the 1960s, focusing on a
peculiar subset of individuals (IBM employees) in 40
countries. Since that time, the list has been expanded to
over 70 countries. However, data for most of these samples
was collected much later (in the 1990s and 2000s). Without
appreciating the temporal dimension, one may be tempted
to compare Hofstede’s ranks of countries for which data
were collected 40 years apart. Unless one assumes that
cultures do not change, and we hope the current evidence
is sufficient to convince the reader otherwise, it seems pru-
dent to avoid such comparisons.
Since ancient times, scholars have argued over how to
incorporate the notion of change in the study of social
phenomena. Whereas philosophers like Democritus con-
ceptualized these phenomena as static and invariant
across time, others, including Heraclitus (and more
recently Dewey, James, and Whitehead), have pictured
social phenomena as inherently in flux (Rescher, 1996).
The debate has continued into the modern era, with
research in psychology often conducted in a manner that
assumes that the phenomena of interest are static, paying
Cultural Change 13
little regard to the inherently temporally embedded
nature of human phenomena, despite various theories
emphasizing cross-temporal processes (e.g., Baltes, 1997;
Bronfenbrenner, 1977; Vygotsky, 1960).
Consistent with an emphasis on dynamism in human
experience, a host of studies summarized in this review
have documented myriad ways in which cultures change
over time. Moreover, in this review, we have highlighted
and proposed several ways to integrate different approaches
to the processes underpinning cultural change. Scholars
have begun to generate and test theories regarding the cul-
tural evolutionary mechanisms by which such changes
have occurred (the how). At the same time, other research-
ers have begun to posit and test specific theory-driven eco-
logical predictions regarding patterns of cultural change
and to test those predictions with real-world time series
data (the why). These two approaches are beginning to
converge and will help to build a fuller account of the pro-
cess and reasons for cultural change.
Although many challenges and open questions remain
for emerging psychology of cultural change, important
advances have been made in understanding the nature
and causes of cultural shifts, ranging from changes in
attitudes and values, to behaviors and practices (i.e.,
divorce, naming practices, wages paid to employees of
different genders), to themes in cultural products (i.e.,
books and film). Research on cultural change is exciting,
adding a temporal dimension to the growing understand-
ing of how culture and psychology mutually influence
each other. As new sources of data and new tools become
available to address such questions, answers to the how
and why of cultural change are poised to provide a richer,
systematic, and integrative understanding of human psy-
chology over time.
We began this piece discussing the recent rise of
extremely conservative political views and a shift toward
illiberal democracies or authoritarianism in many societ-
ies in the past few years. How might insights from the
emerging science of cultural change help us to make
sense of these events? Developments like Brexit and the
election of Donald Trump took most observers by sur-
prise; it may be though that there were clues if one only
knew where to look. We suggest looking at ecology and
patterns of cultural transmission. It seems plausible that
increases in real and perceived threats (such as terrorism
and outbreaks of infectious disease) and/or rising eco-
nomic insecurity for large swaths of the population in
these societies may be responsible for growing opposi-
tion to immigration, increases in public expressions of
prejudice, and greater support for leaders who appear
reluctant to abide by democratic norms. It may also be
that these shifts in political attitudes reflect prior ecologi-
cal shifts more strongly than contemporaneous ones, in
which case one might be able to predict future changes
in the political mood with a deal of lead time. Such prop-
ositions beg for further empirical testing. Similarly, a del-
uge of fake news stories on social media has been
credited with aiding the election of far-right candidates.
Were these stories effective? If so, why? Might they con-
tain some properties (such as minimal counterintuitive-
ness, high personal relevance, and survival relevant
themes) that made them especially likely to be believed
and transmitted? Might such stories be particularly appeal-
ing or persuasive when certain ecological conditions pre-
vail, such as high levels of perceived threat? These remain
open questions, but here too the emerging science of
cultural change may help us to understand some of the
most surprising and important changes occurring in our
We thank Douglas Kenrick and Steven Neuberg for their
insightful comments on previous versions of this manuscript,
and we thank Daniel Hruschka for his input on methodological
challenges in cultural change research.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with
respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.
The present research was funded by Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Grant 435-
2014-0685 to I.G.
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