We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Durham University

Research & business

View Research Directory

Uncovering the determinants of the discovery, utilisation and transmission of information through social learning and innovation in young children

A research project of the School of Education.


Human life is distinct from that of other animals in that it is marked by reliance on cooperation and cumulative culture: shared information which gets transmitted across generations and accumulates modifications, increasing the adaptive fit with the environment. Key in allowing cumulative culture is the transmission of information across generations, and there is now extensive research showing that human children differ from chimpanzees in their capacities and motivation to observe and precisely copy the behaviour and actions of conspecifics, known as imitation. However, while imitation is one of the oldest fields of research in developmental psychology, little research has examined young children's proclivities to depart from the actions shown to them by adults, in the attempt to produce more efficient methods of solving a task, referred to as innovation.

Innovation and individual learning are key in improving cultural products, therefore this research investigates the developmental origins of these capacities and the factors which influence the choice to innovate rather than imitate. Novel apparatuses or 'puzzle boxes' are constructed for which a series of steps must be completed to attain a reward inside. By manipulating the presence of a modelled behaviour (allowing social learning and imitation), withholding any modelled behaviour (prompting individual learning and innovation), or allowing children to choose their learning method, we are able to investigate the parameters which bear on innovative versus imitative behaviour.

Total funding £204,159


Through these methods, which have been the basis of much social learning and imitation research, we hope to begin to establish an understanding of children's learning styles, the properties of innovation, and the developmental origins of the innovative behaviour of adults: an important component of human cumulative culture.


The current research is examining the following factors:

- The effect of social versus individual learning on task efficiency, and the inherent preferences of children to chose social versus individual learning.

- Factors which discriminate between children who prefer to learn socially or individually, such as social behaviour, cognitive style, intelligence, and theory of mind. As well as the effect of having their preferred learning style being violated.

- Factors of the model, such as their demonstrated reliability as a source of information. How differential costs and rewards for imitating or innovating affect children's choices, as well as the inherent difficulty of the task.

- And lastly, how group dynamics affect imitation and innovation: such as, conformity, and how the imitation and innovation of different group members affect task performance. 


From the School of Education

From other departments