UT findings show children are quick to adopt social behavior

Maria Del Bosque

A new study by UT researchers shows children are quick to learn the culture of their communities.

Psychology assistant professor Cristine Legare undertook the research at the Cognition, Culture and Development Lab of UT where 259 children from the ages of 3 to 6 watched videos of actors performing a task, such as beating pegs with a hammer. The actors modeled the tasks in a variety of ways, and the children were randomly assigned to one of eight possible types of modeling. 

After watching a video presentation of the actors, the screen was turned off. The same object which appeared in the video was placed in front of the child, and the child was expected to imitate the actors.

The children were given no clear instruction on how to imitate the actions in the video, and were given 60 seconds before the object was moved out of reach.

When children watched two actors, particularly two actors performing a task simultaneously rather than a single actor, they more closely imitated the actors’ performance of the task. In contrast, when children watched solo demonstrations, children were more likely to ignore the exact sequence of events in performing the task.

Legare, a co-author of the study, researches several topics in the field of cognitive development, integrating theory and research from cognitive psychology to examine cognitive process in cultural contexts.

“Children must be selective about when to imitate, when to innovate and to what degree,” Legare said. “This study provides insight into the kinds of information children use to learn information from other people.”

Paul Harris, a co-author of the study, is a developmental psychologist working at Harvard University interested in the early development of cognition, emotion and imagination. He is a fellow of the British Academy and of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.

“We were intrigued by the extension of how children will imitate where there is some kind of cultural practice. That led us to [have children view] not just one person but two people,” Harris said. “Kids are sensitive to group behaviors. That is the important fact.”

The study found that attention to social cues is a key element of the transmission of cultural knowledge. The findings indicate that children come to social learning tasks ready to interpret them. Language and the type of modeling are two signs that influence children’s copying mechanism. 

“Children are highly sensitive to social information and well prepared to acquire the cultural knowledge of their communities.” Legare said.