How do shared conventions emerge in complex decentralized social systems? This question engages fields as diverse as linguistics, sociology, and cognitive science. Previous empirical attempts to solve this puzzle all presuppose that formal or informal institutions, such as incentives for global agreement, coordinated leadership, or aggregated information about the population, are needed to facilitate a solution. Evolutionary theories of social conventions, by contrast, hypothesize that such institutions are not necessary in order for social conventions to form. However, empirical tests of this hypothesis have been hindered by the difficulties of evaluating the real-time creation of new collective behaviors in large decentralized populations. Here, we present experimental results—replicated at several scales—that demonstrate the spontaneous creation of universally adopted social conventions and show how simple changes in a population’s network structure can direct the dynamics of norm formation, driving human populations with no ambition for large scale coordination to rapidly evolve shared social conventions.
Published in Volume 112, Number 7, pages 1989-1994