Robust, source-independent biases in children's use of socially and individually acquired information



Atkinson M, Renner E, Thompson B, Mackintosh G, Xie D, Su Y & Caldwell CA (2021) Robust, source-independent biases in children's use of socially and individually acquired information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 150 (4), pp. 778-791.

Culture has an extraordinary influence on human behaviour, unparalleled in other species. Some theories propose that humans possess learning mechanisms biologically selected specifically for social learning, which function to promote rapid enculturation. If true, it follows that information acquired via observation of another's activity might be responded to differently, compared with equivalent information acquired through one's own exploration, and that this should be the case in even very young children. To investigate this, we compared children's responses to information acquired either socially, or from personal experience. The task we used allowed direct comparison between these alternative information sources, as the information value was equivalent across conditions, which has not been true of previous methods used to tackle similar questions. Across two 18mo-5yo samples (recruited in the UK and China) we found that children performed similarly following information acquired from social demonstrations, compared with personal experience. Children's use of the information thus appeared independent of source. Furthermore, children's suboptimal performance showed evidence of a consistent bias driven by motivation for exploration as well as exploitation, which was apparent across both conditions and in both samples. Our results are consistent with the view that apparent peculiarities identified in human social information use could be developmental outcomes of general-purpose learning and motivational biases, as opposed to mechanisms that have been biologically selected specifically for the acquisition of cultural information.

social learning; cumulative cultural evolution; learning mechanisms; human behaviour; child development

Journal of Experimental Psychology: General: Volume 150, Issue 4

FundersEuropean Commission (Horizon 2020)
Publication date31/05/2021
Publication date online01/10/2020
Date accepted by journal27/06/2020

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Professor Christine Anna Caldwell

Professor Christine Anna Caldwell

Professor, Psychology

Ms Gemma Mackintosh

Ms Gemma Mackintosh

Tutor (ASF), Psychology

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