Beyond “Social Contagion”: Associational Diffusion and the Emergence of Cultural Variation

Beyond “Social Contagion”: Associational Diffusion and the Emergence of Cultural Variation

By Amir Goldberg, Sarah K. Stein
May 2017Working Paper No. 3562

Network models of diffusion predominantly think about cultural variation as a product of “social contagion.” But culture does not spread like a virus. In this paper, we propose an alternative explanation which we refer to as “associational diffusion.” Drawing on two insights from research in cognition—that meaning inheres in cognitive associations between concepts, and that such perceived associations constrain people’s actions—we suggest that rather than beliefs or behaviors per-se, the things being transmitted between individuals are perceptions about what beliefs or behaviors are compatible with one another. We demonstrate that the endogenous emergence of cultural differentiation can be entirely attributable to social cognition, and does not necessitate a segregated social network or a preexisting division into groups. Our results are robust to variation in individuals’ levels of conformity.