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The biological bases of conformity

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Humans are characterized by an extreme dependence on culturally transmitted information and recent formal theory predicts that natural selection should favor adaptive learning strategies that facilitate effective copying and decision making. One strategy that has attracted particular attention is conformist transmission, defined as the disproportionately likely adoption of the most common variant. Conformity has historically been emphasized as significant in the social psychology literature, and recently there have also been reports of conformist behavior in non-human animals. However, mathematical analyses differ in how important and widespread they expect conformity to be, and relevant experimental work is scarce, and generates findings that are both mutually contradictory and inconsistent with the predictions of the models. We review the relevant literature considering the causation, function, history, and ontogeny of conformity, and describe a computer-based experiment on human subjects that we carried out in order to resolve ambiguities. We found that only when many demonstrators were available and subjects were uncertain was subject behavior conformist. A further analysis found that the underlying response to social information alone was generally conformist. Thus, our data are consistent with a conformist use of social information, but as subjects' behavior is the result of both social and asocial influences, the resultant behavior may not be conformist. We end by relating these findings to an embryonic cognitive neuroscience literature that has recently begun to explore the neural bases of social learning. Here conformist transmission may be a particularly useful case study, not only because there are well-defined and tractable opportunities to characterize the biological underpinnings of this form of social learning, but also because early findings imply that humans may possess specific cognitive adaptations for effective social learning.
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Original languageEnglish
Article number00087
Number of pages7
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
Volume6
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jun 2012

    Research areas

  • Conformity, Social learning, Cultural transmission, Cultural evolution

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