A new study by Psychologists at The University of Texas at Austin has revealed that children are flexible social-learners. Children flexibly choose when to imitate and when to innovate the behavior of others.
Cristine Legare of the University of Texas said that acquiring the skills and practices of their social groups is the fundamental task of childhood. This research demonstrates that children are sensitive to the distinction between instrumental and conventional goals and flexibly adapt their behavior accordingly. Legare said that young children adjust how carefully they imitate and when they innovate, depending on the perceived goal of the behavior or reason for action.
Legare and her colleagues examined imitative and innovative behavior in children between the ages of 4 and 6 after watching one of two videos that illustrated conventional and instrumental uses of various geometric objects and a box. In the conventional video, the start- and end-state of the objects was identical. However, in the instrumental video, the experimenter used the final object in the pattern to open the box and place the object inside.
The children imitated the conventional behavior with higher fidelity. Those who observed an instrumental behavior engaged in more innovative behavior. In a second study, children were also more accurate in detecting variation in conventional than instrumental behavior, suggesting that conventional behavior is driven by expectations for social conformity. Legare said that their research demonstrates that the early-developing distinction between instrumental and conventional behavior was fundamental to cultural learning in our species.
The study is published in the journal cognition