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Young children and chimpanzees copy behaviour of majority
A recent study by MPI researchers offers some news for parents: even toddlers have a tendency to follow the crowd. That sensitivity isn’t unique to humans either; chimpanzees also appear more likely to pick up habits if "everyone else is doing it."
April 13, 2012
Two-year-old children and chimpanzees preferentially copy the behaviour of the majority, but orangutans don't. In their paper 'Majority-Biased Transmission in Chimpanzees and Human Children, but Not Orangutans', Daniel Haun, Yvonne Rekers and Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institutes for Psycholinguistics and Evolutionary Anthropology show that two-year-old human children, and chimpanzees are more likely to copy actions when they see them repeated by three of their peers, than if they see the same action done by one peer three times. The study was published online on April 12 in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.
Influenced by the majority
"I think few people would have expected to find that two-year-olds are already influenced by the majority," said Daniel Haun of the Max Planck Institutes for Psycholinguistics and Evolutionary Anthropology. "Parents and teachers should be aware of these dynamics in children’s peer interactions."
The findings tell us that humans and chimpanzees share this social learning pattern, the researchers say. Orangutans, on the other hand, don’t seem to feel the same majority sway.
Prior studies by Haun and colleagues revealed that children are sensitive to peer pressure already at preschool age. The researchers wanted to know whether the majority influences social learning at an even earlier age, and in other primate species as well.
Choosing among subsections
Haun’s team built a box with three subsections, each a different colour. The box delivered a treat only when a ball was dropped into one of those three coloured subsections. Toddlers, chimpanzees, and orangutans that were unfamiliar with the box were then allowed to watch as four of their same-species peers interacted with the box. The majority of those peer demonstrators had been trained to favour one colour over the others.
When the two-year-old children and chimpanzee observers got their turn, they tended to copy the subsection that was favoured by the majority of their peers. That’s in contrast to orangutans, which chose randomly amongst the subsections.
While the findings might leave some parents in dismay, majority rule probably does have its advantages, evolutionarily speaking. "The tendency to acquire the behaviours of the majority has been posited as key to the transmission of relatively safe, reliable, and productive behavioural strategies," Haun concludes.
Link to the online publication.
See also this news item of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft.
Daniel B.M. Haun, Yvonne Rekers, Michael Tomasello Majority-Biased Transmission in Chimpanzees and Human Children, but Not Orangutans Current Biology (2012), doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.03.006