Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

Cultural learning

Michael Tomaselloa1, Ann Cale Krugera2 and Hilary Horn Ratnera3

a1 Department of Psychology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322 Electronic mail:

a2 Department of Educational Foundations, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA 30303 Electronic mail:

a3 Department of Psychology, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202


This target article presents a theory of human cultural learning. Cultural learning is identified with those instances of social learning in which intersubjectivity or perspective-taking plays a vital role, both in the original learning process and in the resulting cognitive product. Cultural learning manifests itself in three forms during human ontogeny: imitative learning, instructed learning, and collaborative learning – in that order. Evidence is provided that this progression arises from the developmental ordering of the underlying social-cognitive concepts and processes involved. Imitative learning relies on a concept of intentional agent and involves simple perspective-taking. Instructed learning relies on a concept of mental agent and involves alternating/coordinated perspective-taking (intersubjectivity). Collaborative learning relies on a concept of reflective agent and involves integrated perspective-taking (reflective intersubjectivity). A comparison of normal children, autistic children and wild and enculturated chimpanzees provides further evidence for these correlations between social cognition and cultural learning. Cultural learning is a uniquely human form of social learning that allows for a fidelity of transmission of behaviors and information among conspecifics not possible in other forms of social learning, thereby providing the psychological basis for cultural evolution.