How we were raised, not physical environment, explains human behavior

June 16, 2015

For more than a century, scientists have debated why people in different parts of the world eat different foods, follow different social norms and believe in different origin stories.

Is the variation in behavior a result of the environments that we have inhabited or the effect of cultural history and traditions that may have persisted over millennia? people eating local food in Peru Why do people in different parts of the world eat different foods? Two ASU researchers have found social learning is responsible. Photo By Liquen [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons Download Full Image

At stake is understanding whether human uniqueness is driven by our large brains and intelligence, allowing us to adapt to different environments, or by our unprecedented reliance on social learning or culture.

In research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, ASU researchers Sarah Mathew and Charles Perreault find that the main determinant of human behavior is social learning, which is contrary to established assumptions of current thinking in cognitive sciences, psychology and human behavioral ecology.

“Because humans are an unusually smart species, it is tempting to think that individuals figure out on their own the stuff they need to live in different environments,” Mathew said. “But we show that humans do much of what they do because it's how their parent generation did it.”

Mathew and Perreault are assistant professors in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and are both affiliated scientists with the Institute of Human Origins.

While previous studies have alluded to the importance of cultural transmission, their study marks the first time that ecological variation and cultural history have been directly compared with a large sample of societies and behaviors including subsistence, technology, economic organization, settlement patterns, marriage and family, kinship systems and ceremonies and rituals.

Using one of the most comprehensive ethnographic records – the Western North American Indian Dataset – Mathew and Perreault used statistical analysis to compare the relative effect of environment and cultural history.

The ethnographic data is unique because it contains information on 172 Native American tribes geographically spread from Canada to the southern areas of the U.S. West. Mathew and Perreault tested whether the behavioral variation among tribes was due to the fact that they lived in varying environments – from high mountains to coastal regions to deserts – or because they inherited different traditions from their ancestors.

“Our analysis shows, strikingly, that behaviors can persist in cultural lineages for millennia,” Perreault said. “In other words, the behavior of a certain tribe, whether in constructing baskets or following certain marriage practices, is largely due to the fact that their ancestors hundreds or even thousands of years ago practiced the behavior. This means that there is considerable cultural inertia in human behavior, which may have persisted for up to 15,000 years.”

Cultural inertia is not necessarily disadvantageous, the research noted. Learning from one’s parent’s generation could be beneficial because it allows for the accumulation of information through time. This capacity for cultural learning may be why modern humans were able to thrive in virtually every terrestrial habitat on Earth and why human societies vary to an extent unmatched in the animal world.

Julie Russ

Assistant director, Institute of Human Origins


Jason Thompson hired as assistant professor of music education in the School of Music

June 16, 2015

The ASU School of Music is pleased to announce the appointment of Jason Thompson as assistant professor of music education.

“We are delighted that Jason Thompson will join our faculty this fall,” said Heather Landes, director of the School of Music. “Thompson’s research portfolio parallels the Herberger Institute socially engaged practices initiative; he brings a number of courses and teaching interests that will enhance our offerings in music, music education and engagement with community; and he provides a unique voice to our faculty.” Jason Thompson joins the ASU School of Music as assistant professor of music education, beginning in fall of 2015. Photo courtesy of Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts Download Full Image

Thompson graduated with a PhD from Northwestern University this spring, and his dissertation research focuses on the role that creating rap music may play in how detained youth experience their incarceration.

“While the contexts of prisons have been characterized as places filled with fear, violence, extreme sadness, boredom and even violence, findings in my study suggest that participating in the musical experience can be positive experiences for youth detained in these settings,” says Thompson. “My findings suggest that music making was a platform for participants’ artistic expression, an opportunity for culture relevance and a means for identity construction, to name a few.”

As Landes notes, Thompson’s research interests and professional experiences align closely with several initiatives in the Herberger Institute, including socially engaged practice in design and the arts, arts in urban contexts and sociocultural issues in arts education.

“The School of Music’s reputation as a top-ranked music institution was an initial attraction as a place to work, but the most important draw was the Herberger Institute’s focus on how socially engaged practices in the arts can transform societies for the better,” says Thompson. “ASU is a forerunner in regards to thinking about the role the arts will play in the future, and I’m really honored to be a part of seeing that mission come into fruition.”

In addition to his work in the music education and music therapy division, Thompson will contribute to non-major offerings such as Gospel Choir, general music studies courses, and potentially the Urban Music Ensemble. “In both teaching and research, I’m really looking forward to rolling my sleeves up and digging my hands deep into the transformative work of music that will potentially connect ASU students with surrounding communities,” says Thompson.

Prior to beginning his PhD work, Thompson taught at Appalachian State University. He also has general and choral music education experience in elementary, middle and high schools in North Carolina and Virginia.

Originally from Hillsborough, North Carolina, Thompson was raised in a family with a strong focus on music at home and in the church he attended. “These experiences were coupled with an amazing elementary music teacher and high school choral director whose teaching styles made music a favorite subject and a possible career goal for me,” says Thompson. “I used to think that I chose music; I’ve come to believe that music really chose me, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Public Contact: 
Heather Beaman
School of Music Communications Liaison

Media Contact:
Heather Beaman
School of Music Communications Liaison