Cognitive flexibility supports the development of cumulative cultural learning in children

Sarah Davis, Bruce Rawlings*, Jennifer M. Clegg, Daniel Ikejimba, Rachel E. Watson-Jones, Andrew Whiten, Cristine H. Legare

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The scale of cumulative cultural evolution (CCE) is a defining characteristic of humans. Despite marked scientific interest in CCE, the cognitive underpinnings supporting its development remain understudied. We examined the role cognitive flexibility plays in CCE by studying U.S. children’s (N = 167, 3–5-year-olds) propensity to relinquish an inefficient solution to a problem in favor of a more efficient alternative, and whether they would resist reverting to earlier versions. In contrast to previous work with chimpanzees, most children who first learned to solve a puzzlebox in an inefficient way switched to an observed, more efficient alternative. However, over multiple task interactions, 85% of children who switched reverted to the inefficient method. Moreover, almost all children in a control condition (who first learned the efficient method) switched to the inefficient method. Thus, children were keen to explore an alternative solution but, like chimpanzees, are overall conservative in reverting to their first-learned one.
Original languageEnglish
Article number14073
Number of pages12
JournalScientific Reports
Publication statusPublished - 18 Aug 2022


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