Context-dependent model-based biases in cultural transmission: children's imitation is affected by model age over model knowledge state

Lara A. Wood*, Rachel L. Kendal, Emma G. Flynn

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

84 Citations (Scopus)


Many animals, including humans, acquire information through social learning. Although such information can be acquired easily, its potential unreliability means it should not be used indiscriminately. Cultural 'transmission biases' may allow individuals to weigh their reliance on social information according to a model's characteristics. In one of the first studies to juxtapose two model-based biases, we investigated whether the age and knowledge state of a model affected the fidelity of children's copying. Eighty-five 5-year-old children watched a video demonstration of either an adult or child, who had professed either knowledge or ignorance regarding a tool-use task, extracting a reward from that task using both causally relevant and irrelevant actions. Relevant actions were imitated faithfully by children regardless of the model's characteristics, but children who observed an adult reproduced more irrelevant actions than those who observed a child. The professed knowledge state of the model showed a weaker effect on imitation of irrelevant actions. Overall, children favored the use of a 'copy adults' bias over a 'copy task-knowledgeable individual' bias, even though the latter could potentially have provided more reliable information. The use of such social learning strategies has significant implications for understanding the phenomenon of imitation of irrelevant actions (overimitation), instances of maladaptive information cascades, and cumulative culture.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)387-394
Number of pages8
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number4
Early online date8 Mar 2012
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Imitation
  • Transmission biases
  • Social learning strategies
  • Model characteristics
  • Knowledge state


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