The development of adaptive conformity in young children: effects of uncertainty and consensus

T.J. Morgan, K.N. Laland, P.L. Harris

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55 Citations (Scopus)


Human culture relies on extensive use of social transmission, which must be integrated with independently acquired (i.e. asocial) information for effective decision-making. Formal evolutionary theory predicts that natural selection should favor adaptive learning strategies, including a bias to copy when uncertain, and a bias to disproportionately copy the majority (known as conformist transmission'). Although the function and causation of these evolved strategies has been comparatively well studied, little is known of their development. We experimentally investigated the development of the bias to copy-when-uncertain and conformist transmission in children from the ages of 3 to 7, testing predictions derived from theoretical models. Children first attempted to solve a binary-choice quantity discrimination task themselves using asocial information, but were then given the decisions of informants, and an opportunity to revise their answer. We investigated whether children's revised judgments were adaptively contingent on (i) the difficulty of the trial and (ii) the degree of consensus amongst informants. As predicted, older but not younger children copied others more on more difficult trials than on easier trials, even though older children also showed a tendency to stick with their initial, asocial decision. We also found that older children, like adults, were disproportionately receptive to non-total majorities (i.e. were conformist) whereas younger children were receptive only to total (i.e. unanimous) majorities. We conclude that, whilst the mechanism for incorporating social information into decision-making is initially very blunt, across the course of early childhood it converges on the adaptive learning mechanisms observed in adults and predicted by cultural evolutionary theory. A video abstract of this article can be viewed at

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)511-524
Number of pages14
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number4
Early online date5 Oct 2014
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2015


  • Social learning
  • Trust
  • Conformity
  • Uncertainty
  • Conformist transmission
  • Social learning strategy


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