Are Children Copycats?
(19 July 2012)
Our study demonstrates that adults are incredibly influential on young children’s learning, but this isn’t necessarily because adults are seen as more knowledgeable, rather it may be due to an innate bias to copy adults. This has important implications for studying humans’ transmission of tool and technology use and has practical implications for children’s learning.
We know children are prolific social learners and copying the behavior of others is useful when done selectively. Take the example of learning to use a remote control; a child learns to use a television remote control through watching and imitating a parent who points the remote at the television and presses a button, however, she also avoids imitating a younger sibling who puts the remote control in his mouth and bites a button, resulting in the TV coming on.
Previous research has shown that children copy adults, but our study aimed to established what it is about ‘adults’ that produces this effect. Is it simply that they are adults, or are they deemed to be more knowledgeable?
Our ‘model’ was either an adult or a child who either claimed ignorance or knowledge as to how to operate a puzzle box to retrieve a reward inside. Children, from primary schools across County Durham, correctly identified which adults and children were knowledgeable or ignorant but they didn’t seem to use this information to guide their learning.
A group of five-year-old children copied some irrelevant actions included in a demonstration by the adult to retrieve a reward from the puzzle box, irrespective of whether the adult professed that she knew ‘how to do it, or that she ‘didn’t know how to do it’. However,when the model was a child, the children were more discerning, copying only the actions that were necessary to retrieving the reward, even when the child had professed knowledge as to how to extract the reward.
The copying of unnecessary actions seems maladaptive. However, children could be demonstrating a sophisticated reasoning model. A wise assumption may be that adults are more likely to produce actions that might look irrelevant but actually have an opaque function of mechanical, social or cultural relevance, whilst actions of peer-aged children that look irrelevant should be taken at face value.
An overriding strategy of imitating ‘adults faithfully and copying children unless their actions seem non-functional’ may be extremely useful. High-fidelity copying is a necessary factor underlying the unique capacity of humans for cultural transmission and cumulative cultural transmission (building upon our technologies). The selective nature of children's social learning, in copying adults over children and potentially assessing the irrelevance of apparently causally irrelevant actions, explains why a more likely result is the advancement of complex, socially learned behaviours.
As well as giving insight into human’s cultural evolution, this study has practical implications for children’s learning. The research highlights the importance of adults providing young children with relevant and accurate information and exercising caution when sharing information of which they are uncertain. Five-year-old children are obviously heavily influenced by adults even when these adults say they are uncertain of the answer. Therefore adults stating ‘I don’t know but I think Henry VIII had five wives’ may be more detrimental to children’s learning than offering no answer.
Children are sensitive to the context of the situation, evaluating both the details of the task in hand and the characteristics of the person showing them. Children’s response to one teacher’s information in one situation may change when either the situation or teacher changes and nursery and schools would benefit from understanding this context dependent learning.
Lara Wood is a PhD student in the Centre for the Coevolution of Biology and Culture in the Department of Psychology at Durham University.