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Social learning in the real-world: ‘over-imitation’ occurs in both children and adults unaware of participation in an experiment and independently of social interaction

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David Andrew Whiten, Gillian Allan, Siobhan Devlin, Natalie Kseib, Nicola Raw, Nicola McGuigan

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Abstract

The current study avoided the typical laboratory context to determine instead whether over-imitation—the disposition to copy even visibly, causally unnecessary actions—occurs in a real-world context in which participants are unaware of being in an experiment. We disguised a puzzle-box task as an interactive item available to the public within a science engagement zone of Edinburgh Zoo. As a member of the public approached, a confederate acting as a zoo visitor retrieved a reward from the box using a sequence of actions containing both causally relevant and irrelevant elements. Despite the absence of intentional demonstration, or social pressure to copy, a majority of both child and even adult observers included all causally irrelevant actions in their reproduction. This occurred even though causal irrelevance appeared manifest because of the transparency of the puzzle-box. That over-imitation occurred so readily in a naturalistic context, devoid of social interaction and pressure, suggests that humans are opportunistic social learners throughout the lifespan, copying the actions of other individuals even when these actions are not intentionally demonstrated, and their causal significance is not readily apparent. The disposition to copy comprehensively, even when a mere onlooker, likely provides humans, irrespective of their age, with a powerful mechanism to extract maximal information from the social environment.
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Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0159920
Number of pages14
JournalPLoS One
Volume11
Issue number7
DOIs
StatePublished - 28 Jul 2016

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