Annenberg School for Communication
University of Pennsylvania
Attractor Dynamics in the Social Construction of Categories
It is widely held that communication leads social groups to differ in the cultural traits and linguistic categories they adopt. Because individuals can vary in how they form novel categories, larger population sizes are said to increase variation among category systems as social groups are made to select from a larger set of competing options. Anthropological evidence of cross-group coherence, where separate social groups arrive at surprisingly similar categories, has thus been taken as evidence of innate concepts and biases that allow people to construct highly similar categories in certain domains, independent of social influence. Here, we use an online platform to experimentally control the size of people’s social group as they collaboratively label a continuum of novel shapes. Based on the predictions of our formal model, we find that communication leads small social groups to construct highly divergent category systems, while it leads larger groups to construct strikingly similar category systems. This finding reveals social attractors in category formation and suggests that cross-group coherence can emerge from coordination dynamics.