Selective copying of the majority suggests children are broadly "optimal-" rather than "over-" imitators

Cara L. Evans, Kevin N. Laland, Malinda Carpenter, Rachel L Kendal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Human children, in contrast to other species, are frequently cast as prolific “over-imitators”. However, previous studies of “over-imitation” have overlooked many important real-world social dynamics, and may thus provide an inaccurate account of this seemingly puzzling and potentially maladaptive phenomenon. Here we investigate this topic using a cultural evolutionary approach, focusing particularly on the key adaptive learning strategy of majority-biased copying. Most “over-imitation” research has been conducted using consistent demonstrations to the observer, but we systematically varied the frequency of demonstrators that 4- to 6-year-old children observed performing a causally irrelevant action. Children who “over-imitate” inflexibly should copy the majority regardless of whether the majority solution omits or includes a causally irrelevant action. However, we found that children calibrated their tendency to acquire the majority behavior, such that copying did not extend to majorities that performed irrelevant actions. These results are consistent with a highly functional, adaptive integration of social and causal information, rather than explanations implying unselective copying or causal misunderstanding. This suggests that our species might be better characterized as broadly “optimal-” rather than “over-” imitators.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12637
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number5
Early online date17 Dec 2017
Publication statusPublished - 29 Aug 2018


  • Over-imitation
  • Majority-biased copying
  • Conformity
  • Cultural evolution
  • Cultural transmission
  • Social learning


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