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"Learning by copying" - study results published in "Nature Communications

04. June 2018

Children learn by observing their environment. They are faced with the enormous task of integrating themselves into the specific social and ecological conditions on the ground. What can I eat? How do I have to speak? What do I have to do? One of several parallel learning strategies is to focus on the majority. Scientists at the University of Leipzig have investigated to what extent children of different cultures open up their world in the course of their development through this kind of learning, i.e. by looking away from the majority. They have now published their findings in the renowned online journal “Nature Communications”.

The team led by Prof. Dr. Daniel Haun of the Leipzig Research Center for Early Childhood Development has measured two main aspects of social information use: general dependence on social information and majority preference. The researchers investigated the extent to which social learning among children is stable or context-dependent across cultural contexts among children from seven different cultures.

The development of social information use was surveyed among a total of 605 children aged 4 to 14 years. Children from Brazil, Germany, Indonesia, Kenya, Namibia, Zambia and the Central African Republic were given a standardised learning task. The study shows: The extent to which children rely on social information depends on their cultural background. The strength of orientation towards the majority also varies interculturally. The research results show not only diversity in the field of human social learning, but also cultural continuity. They also suggest that majority orientation is one of the foundations of human social learning.

Cultural differences in social learning – majority preference a question of age

“In some societies children rely more and more on social role models with age, i.e. children of the same age, in others their influence decreases with age,” says Prof. Dr. Daniel Haun. Although the influence of the majority differs from place to place, the course of majority orientation seems to be the same throughout the world. “While children in young years from 4 to 6 and the older children in our sample from 10 to 14 are relatively strongly oriented towards the majority, children aged 7 to 9 consider the majority much less frequently than younger and older children in their community. It is not yet clear why this is the case.”

For example, German children between the ages of 4 and 14 rely less and less on social learning as they get older. “This does not apply to children from all societies,” Haun explains. “Nevertheless, the German children also show the apparently universal course of development that the youngest and oldest children are most strongly oriented towards the majority.” Outside of this divided developmental process, children behave very differently in different societies. “If you look at children in the same age group in different societies, there are usually large differences in the use of social information and in majority orientation.”

The cultural comparison allows the scientists to understand how different developmental processes in childhood unfold in different social and ecological environments. On the other hand, they can also identify developmental processes that are similar under various circumstances and thus perhaps part of the stable foundation of child development.

Good role models especially important for the youngest – take cultural backgrounds into account in teaching and learning situations

Especially the young German children in the sample at the age of 4 to 6 are in a development phase that is characterized by a strong social and a strong majority orientation. “This means that many of the preferences and characteristics of the social environment are now transferred to the children”, Haun explains. “We should therefore be aware of our responsibility to offer them an environment full of good examples, especially at this stage of development.” But it is equally important, in an increasingly culturally diverse society, not to confuse equality with equality. “Children who have grown up in different social backgrounds have very different expectations and strategies in social interactions and above all in teaching and learning situations. It is important to take these variations of children’s expectations into account in our early childhood educational institutions and to learn to use them to our mutual advantage.”

Link to publication

Nature Communications: “The development of human social learning across seven societies”
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-04468-2

Text: Katrin Henneberg & Daniel Haun
Photo: Colourbox

Madlen Bartholmeß
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