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

Mark Atkinson*, Elizabeth Renner, Bill Thompson, Gemma Mackintosh, Dongjie Xie, Yanjie Su, Christine A. Caldwell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Culture has an extraordinary influence on human behavior, 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 18-month- to 5-year-old samples (recruited in the United Kingdom 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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)778-791
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number4
Early online date1 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2021
Externally publishedYes

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