Skip to content

Research at St Andrews

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Open Access permissions



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

    Research areas

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

Discover related content
Find related publications, people, projects and more using interactive charts.

View graph of relations

Related by author

  1. Animal learning as a source of developmental bias

    Laland, K. N., Toyokawa, W. & Oudman, T., 26 Aug 2019, In : Evolution and Development. Early View, e12311.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  2. Social transmission favours the ‘morally good’ over the ‘merely arousing’

    Stubbersfield, J. M., Dean, L. G., Sheikh, S., Laland, K. N. & Cross, C. P., 4 Jun 2019, In : Palgrave Communications. 5, 11 p., 3.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  3. The reach of gene-culture coevolution in animals

    Whitehead, H., Laland, K. N., Rendell, L., Thorogood, R. & Whiten, A., 3 Jun 2019, In : Nature Communications. 10, 10 p., 2405.

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

  4. A four-questions perspective on public information use in sticklebacks (Gasterosteidae)

    Webster, M. M., Chouinard-Thuly, L., Herczeg, G., Kitano, J., Riley, R. J., Rogers, S., Shapiro, M. D., Shikano, T. & Laland, K. N., 20 Feb 2019, In : Royal Society Open Science. 6, 2, 24 p., 181735.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Related by journal

  1. Developmental Science (Journal)

    Juan-Carlos Gomez (Editor)
    2005 → …

    Activity: Publication peer-review and editorial work typesEditor of research journal

Related by journal

  1. Natural reference: a phylo- and ontogenetic perspective on the comprehension of iconic gestures and vocalizations

    Bohn, M., Call, J. & Tomasello, M., 18 Oct 2018, In : Developmental Science. Early View, e12757.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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

    Evans, C. L., Laland, K. N., Carpenter, M. & Kendal, R. L., 29 Aug 2018, In : Developmental Science. 21, 5, e12637.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  3. Children infer affiliative and status relations from watching others imitate

    Over, H. & Carpenter, M., Nov 2015, In : Developmental Science. 18, 6, p. 917-925

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  4. Target Article with Commentaries: Developmental niche construction

    Flynn, E. G., Laland, K. N., Kendal, R. L. & Kendal, J. R., Mar 2013, In : Developmental Science. 16, 2, p. 296-313 18 p.

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

ID: 159067044