The evolution of prestige: freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission

Evol Hum Behav. 2001 May;22(3):165-196. doi: 10.1016/s1090-5138(00)00071-4.


This paper advances an "information goods" theory that explains prestige processes as an emergent product of psychological adaptations that evolved to improve the quality of information acquired via cultural transmission. Natural selection favored social learners who could evaluate potential models and copy the most successful among them. In order to improve the fidelity and comprehensiveness of such ranked-biased copying, social learners further evolved dispositions to sycophantically ingratiate themselves with their chosen models, so as to gain close proximity to, and prolonged interaction with, these models. Once common, these dispositions created, at the group level, distributions of deference that new entrants may adaptively exploit to decide who to begin copying. This generated a preference for models who seem generally "popular." Building on social exchange theories, we argue that a wider range of phenomena associated with prestige processes can more plausibly be explained by this simple theory than by others, and we test its predictions with data from throughout the social sciences. In addition, we distinguish carefully between dominance (force or force threat) and prestige (freely conferred deference).