project . 2012 - 2016 . Closed

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

UK Research and Innovation
Funder: UK Research and InnovationProject code: ES/J021385/1
Funded under: ESRC Funder Contribution: 204,159 GBP
Status: Closed
28 Sep 2012 (Started) 27 Mar 2016 (Ended)

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.

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