Culture as a response to uncertainty

What is Culture for? One answer we have provided is that Culture is a way for humans to collectively reduce uncertainty. Our world is uncertain – especially our fellow humans. People that have lived in other countries have a better understanding of this mechanism. When I moved to a new country, there have always been question on for instance what is appropriate to wear or how the other person would behave as a response to my requests.

Culture does exactly this: creates a set of implicit or explicit rules that let us navigate the environment quickly. When I give an order to the waiter, s/he already knows that I will pay later. There is no need to write a contract or even talk about it each and every time. Thus there is less uncertainty. This lloks trivial but it is not: somebody who moves to US from Europe might have difficulties understanding that she should leave X% as a tip to the waiter.One could learn this shared meaning by either direct instruction or by trial and error (which happened to myself when I first visited US and decided to leave only 10% tip – which was more than enough for European standards; only to have the waiter quickly yelling at me).

But how exactly one learns a new culture? We believe that the very same mechanisms that underlie typical reinforcement learning could be used in en-culturation – i.e. how humans learn to navigate new cultures. This is explained in detail in my chapter with P. Tobler at the Oxford Handbook of Cultural Neuroscience (edited by Joan Chiao, Shu-Chen Li,  Rebecca Seligman and Robert Turner) and can be found at my Publications.