How Culture Evolves: Measuring Cultural Distance and Variation

35 Pages Posted: 6 Apr 2021

Date Written: April 5, 2021


Culture and cultural evolution have become more frequent and more prominent in Economics, possibly due to the greater availability of data and new ways to measure culture. In order to use culture as a determinant of human behavior and economic outcomes, it is necessary to understand how culture changes over time and how it varies across and within societies. This paper contributes towards this understanding in two ways. First, I present a fitness landscape representation of cultural evolution using Boolean hyper-cubes. This approach yields several characteristics of cultural evolution observed in the data, including sensitivity to initial conditions, path dependence, unpredictability, multiplicity of local optima, and interdependent/coherent cultural dimensions. It also illustrates why some cultures seem to remain stuck in less fit regions of the space of possibilities. I use data for five widely used measures of cultural dimensions to show that a sample of 96 countries is distributed across the culture-space in a way that is consistent with the grouping of developed versus developing countries. The results suggest the primary importance individualism over other dimensions (conformity, impartiality, trust and gender bias) as a determinant of economic performance. Second, I use the latest wave of the World Values Survey (WVS-7, 2017-2020) and a new measure of cultural distance (Muthukrishna, Bell, et al., 2020) and show that even though this measure varies across individuals in a same country, as well as across groups within each country (as measured by regions, gender, age, rural/urban, income and education), countries as a whole nevertheless exhibit distinct cultures from each other. I also create a measure of culture that is consistent across five waves of the World Value Survey (1990-2020) to show how culture varies over time.

Keywords: Culture, evolution, co-evolution, cultural distance, WEIRD.

JEL Classification: B10, D02, I32, Z1, Z13.

Suggested Citation

Mueller, Bernardo, How Culture Evolves: Measuring Cultural Distance and Variation (April 5, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

Bernardo Mueller (Contact Author)

Universidade de Brasilia ( email )

Dept. de Economia
Universidade de Brasilia
Brasilia, DF 70910-900
55 61 981110349 (Phone)
55 61 3349-1303 (Fax)


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