Could real people actually get interest in the mechanisms of cultural inheritance? Two examples make me think that they might.

First, firms have been discovering the impact of rumors upon their sales: the amercian case of Procter and Gamble (which suffered from rumors about a satanic cult), or the french case of OCB (which was rumored in the nineties to found the Front National, a far-right party) spring to mind. Since then, Procter and Gamble has decided to finance the works of psychologist Nicholas Di Fonzio, who publishes Rumor Psychology, while an Internet survey (which you can contribute here by repeating the last silly rumor you heard - why not this one?) is launched.

I haven't read the book, which seems to tackle the question mostly from the social/organisational angle (in other words, the authors seem to ask: how can a firm control and neutralise a rumor?); here's to you, corporate anthropologists: the study of rumor may be a bonanza for the social sciences in the following years. But one wonders how the authors manage to frame psychology into this picture (though, again, I haven't read the book).

Taking psychological mechanisms into acount when explaining cultural inheritance may be more relevant in the case of online games of chinese whispers (one of the quaint topics I dot on - see this other post of mine about apes playing it). One of them (thanks to Madame Martin for signalling it to me) is called The Sentence (aka "Eat Poop You Cat"). As their website has it,

The Sentence Game (...) has often been described as a cross between the games Pictionary and Telephone. It could just as well be described as a cross between a Rorschach test and a graphic novel, although for some reason it never is.

Each game begins with a sentence – often a deeply disturbing or completely abstract sentence – written on the top of a piece of paper. The sentence is passed to the next player, who draws a picture in a futile attempt to depict the sentence. They then fold the paper so that the sentence is no longer visible, and pass the paper to yet another player, who must write a new sentence based on what he or she thinks the picture is showing. Then this third player folds the picture out of view and passes the sentence on to another player, so repeating the process.

The game ends (at step 5) with a sentence, not with a picture. Sometimes the process very roughly preserves the semantics of the beginning sentence, as in this case:

Sentence 1: Bill Oddie, Bill Oddie, put your hands all over my body


Sentence 5: Bozo the perverted clown chased after the blond girl.

But most often the chinese whisper deformation process runs wild, and the result is nonsensical (which is obviously what the players enjoy). See this case:

Sentence 1: The Easter Bunny got into a car accident with Hulk Hogan.


Sentence 5: One of these things is not like the other: Nicholas Cage, Charro, and a purple hippopotamus.

See a list of first-last sentences here. This is a beautiful example of the sperberian idea of cultural inheritance being transformative rather than preservative... except that it is too beautiful an example. The games is designed to obtain the widest possible discrepancy between beginning and end (because that's what's fun). For example, the rules explicitely ask the players to "write an interpretation, not a description" of the drawing. I would rather compare it to a cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse) than to chinese whispers stricto sensu.

Nevertheless, however biased, these chains of cultural transmission could be worth a study; there is a huge amount of data on the website.