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

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Psychology


Innovation and social learning are two of the key skills that have allowed humans to inhabit all corners of the world. They underpin 'culture', as social learning facilitates the faithful acquisition and transmission of cultural practices that consist of knowledge that has been built up over generations, while innovation allows adaptations to such behaviours and knowledge so that they become more efficient, a skill essential to survival in a changing environment. Copying another individual's behaviour means one can acquire essential information quickly, as opposed to through a process of trial and error learning, which would mean that no adaptations would survive beyond one's own existence. However, copying others may not always result in optimum behaviour. If all individuals in a population copy those around them then no individual is sampling the environment and establishing whether another behaviour would be more productive; thus, copying alone produces a population which becomes 'stuck'. For behaviours to become more efficient and effective, an individual or a group of individuals must step outside the status quo and make a change to current practice. Thus when faced with a novel task an individual needs to decide whether to attempt the task alone without any other information (asocial learning), to copy another individual or group of individuals (social learning), or to observe others but then to adapt what s/he has witnessed others do (innovation), so that the goal is achieved in the most effective way. Thus individuals must decide on their learning strategy.

In this series of studies we propose to understand how a reliance on social learning and/or asocial learning changes in early childhood, and whether any predispositions to learn personally or by watching others is dictated by the context of the learning situation. We propose to take a multidimensional approach that investigates the full context of the learning situation, including the characteristics a child brings to the task (e.g. age, gender, as well as cognitive and social factors), the role of a model's characteristics (e.g., their reported expertise, as well as the effect of seeing more than one model perform an action), and the role of contextual factors, (e.g., the difficulty of the task and social pressure).

Theoretically the rate of use of social learning and innovation has been linked to two factors: cooperation and competition. By working together collaboratively we achieve more than working alone, potentially through processes such as faithful copying of successful behaviours, the pedagogical highlighting of important information or the communication and discussion of ideas. Yet, related claims have also been made for the role of competition in innovation; with business analysts suggesting that without competition innovation is lessened and researchers interested in non-human animal behaviour showing that innovation appears in competitive situations. Using an open diffusion design, in which behaviour acquisition and transmission is tracked across groups of individuals, we will look at how the motivations an individual feels (working for oneself or working for one's group) and the nature of the task (a collaborative task versus a task that can be worked independently) affects the production and transmission of socially learnt, or innovative behaviour. Finally, environments are rarely unchanging, and so we incorporate a further dimension into our proposal by exploring the effect of unexpected changes (previously efficient behaviours will no longer work but new behaviours will, and also the level of reward will be inconsistent). Previous work has found that uncertain environments increase reliance on social learning, with individuals being less willing to innovate in times of flux; therefore we consider these findings in the light of cooperative and competitive environments.

Planned Impact

The most obvious impact of this series of studies is scientific advancement across a number of sub-disciplines. Until now asocial learning and innovation have often been seen as an alternative to the fidelity seen in social learning; however, we propose to advance current understanding by establishing the dynamic processes that leads a child to choose between social learning, asocial learning and innovation. Such an investigation is of interest to researchers within this field, but also:
Anthropology, as the work explores some of the fundamental aspects of what makes us human, that is the acquisition, transmission and evolution of culture. By exploring differing levels of cooperation and competition (both across the nature of the task and the motivation of the individuals for limited resources, in an unstable environment) we can establish why we see different levels of innovation across societies (potential users: members of the AHRC Culture and Mind Project; Culture, Cognition & Coevolution Lab, University of British Columbia)
Animal Behaviour, Investigating the social learning and cultural evolution of young children and human adults provides an important counterpoint to current work exploring social learning strategy use in non-human animals. We know that although animals can learn both asocially and socially, innovation is relatively rare. Our proposed work offers some evidence to address why innovation is rare in the animal kingdom (potential users: Centre for Social Learning and Cultural Evolution, St Andrews; Living Links Center, Yerkes)
Linguistics, Our proposed work is analogous to research on language evolution that investigates the parameters of the acquisition, transmission and evolution of language. Here we present an alternative domain, that of 'artefact use', which allows parallels to be drawn about the conditions under which actions may change over generations (potential users: Language Evolution and Computation, Edinburgh; Department of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna)
Developmental Psychology, Finally, an obvious impact will be made in the field of developmental psychology in areas interested in children's social learning, innovation, tool use, causal reasoning, conformity, overimitation, problem-solving and social affiliation (potential users, Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig; Developmental Evolutionary Psychology Lab, Florida Atlantic University).
The work proposes a new collaboration between Prof Giraldeau and Dr Flynn, two internationally respected academics within the field of social learning and innovation, as evidenced by their CVs. Our proposal provides the opportunity to stand UK-funded research on the centre stage of an area of research of international and multidisciplinary interest. It also offers the opportunity to produce a highly skilled researcher, who will finish the grant with many transferable skills.
The research also has societal and cultural impact, providing information about how individuals make their decisions, thus assisting in understanding maladaptive behaviour acquisition (e.g. smoking). We can also establish, and thus exploit, the best scenarios for knowledge and behaviour acquisition. For example, are children adept at deciding what their most effective learning strategy is across contexts, or is this dictated by other factors including, age, gender and/or task difficulty? By having a clearer understanding of determinants of social learning and innovation we can establish an environment in which we should see more creativity, in the form of innovation. Such an understanding, although focused on young children in this proposal, has the potential in the long term, to impact on areas as diverse as innovation in business and staff training in areas such as healthcare and education, and it is our aim to apply for follow-on funding to exploit these more applied research avenues.


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Dean LG (2014) Human cumulative culture: a comparative perspective. in Biological reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society

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Flynn E (2016) Selectivity in social and asocial learning: investigating the prevalence, effect and development of young children's learning preferences. in Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences

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Reader SM (2016) Animal and human innovation: novel problems and novel solutions. in Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences

Description The project aimed to establish when children would learn from others, and when they would learn by themselves. The results showed differences in the social learning skills of 3-year-olds and 5-year-olds; with the majority of young children being social learners, but some very skilled individual learners developing by age 5 years.
Exploitation Route These findings have a clear impact on understanding who innovates and when they innovate. It has implications for young children's education and classroom set up.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The findings of these studies contribute to our understanding of the context under which we innovate or copy. Study 1 provides information about the development of the preference to learn socially versus to learn for oneself. The findings show that the majority of 3- to 5-year-olds prefer to learn socially but that there is a small group of children from 5 years who chose to learn independently and are extremely effective at using this style of learning. These results have implications for how young children's learning environments should be structured so as to be most beneficial. Flynn, E., Turner, C. & Giraldeau, L.-A. (2016). Selectivity in social and asocial learning: investigating the prevalence, effect and development of young children's learning preferences. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 371(1690): 20150189. The second series of research investigated how children select between models. The findings show that work on children's trust, that is whom to learn from, needs to consider the choice of whether to learn independently as well as to select between models. The work suggests that model unreliability causes greater social learning requests and attention to other, even novel, models when they are available. These findings evidence human children's strong propensity to learn socially compared with non-human animals; and suggest there is a more complicated relationship between learning preference, model reliability and selective trust than has been captured in previous research. The results have implications for how we measure and understand trust in young children. Turner, C., Giraldeau, L.-A. & Flynn, E. (2017). How does the reliability of a model affect children's choice to learn socially or individually?. Evolution and Human Behavior 38(3): 341-349. Study 3 examined how young children's propensity to copy the majority is affected by the domain of the group's behaviour. Children are sensitive to the contextual cues of the domain in which they are witnessing norms, and vary their own conformity based on such cues as they develop; more children conformed to an arbitrary preference than in reward preference and perceptual judgement conditions, with three-year-olds conforming significantly more than five-year-olds. These finding provide information about how to influence children's behaviour and learning when they are in groups. Flynn, E., Turner, C. & Giraldeau, L.-A. (under revision). Follow (or don't follow) the crowd: Young children's conformity is influenced by norm domain and age Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. All of these results, along with the other related research within the grant, have been presented at conferences, workshops and seminars to mixed audiences including academics (including psychologists, educationalists, anthropologists, philosophers, biologists, ecologists) and practitioners such as teachers, educational psychologists and clinical psychologists.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Education,Healthcare
Impact Types Societal

Description CAPES (Brazilian Government Funding, Full Studentship and Fees)
Amount R$ 1 (BRL)
Organisation Government of Brazil 
Sector Public
Country Brazil
Start 10/2013 
End 09/2016
Description ESRC NEDTC
Amount £50,000 (GBP)
Organisation Durham University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2014 
End 09/2018
Description ESRC NEDTC
Amount £45,000 (GBP)
Organisation Durham University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2012 
End 09/2015
Description ESRC NEDTC
Amount £45,000 (GBP)
Organisation Durham University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2014 
End 09/2017
Description Innovation Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact 40 People attended a workshop on animal and human innovation. This workshop was attended by academics from across the globe, including New Zealand, Australia, America, Canada, many parts of Europe. The audience consisted of undergraduate, postgraduate and academics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015