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Selective copying of the majority suggests children are broadly “optimal-” rather than “over-” imitators.

Evans, C.L. and Laland, K.N. and Carpenter, M. and Kendal, R.L. (2018) 'Selective copying of the majority suggests children are broadly “optimal-” rather than “over-” imitators.', Developmental science., 21 (5). e12637.


Human children, in contrast to other species, are frequently cast as prolific “over-imitators”. However, previous studies of “over-imitation” have overlooked many important real-world social dynamics, and may thus provide an inaccurate account of this seemingly puzzling and potentially maladaptive phenomenon. Here we investigate this topic using a cultural evolutionary approach, focusing particularly on the key adaptive learning strategy of majority-biased copying. Most “over-imitation” research has been conducted using consistent demonstrations to the observer, but we systematically varied the frequency of demonstrators that 4- to 6-year-old children observed performing a causally irrelevant action. Children who “over-imitate” inflexibly should copy the majority regardless of whether the majority solution omits or includes a causally irrelevant action. However, we found that children calibrated their tendency to acquire the majority behavior, such that copying did not extend to majorities that performed irrelevant actions. These results are consistent with a highly functional, adaptive integration of social and causal information, rather than explanations implying unselective copying or causal misunderstanding. This suggests that our species might be better characterized as broadly “optimal-” rather than “over-” imitators.

Item Type:Article
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Publisher statement:This is the accepted version of the following article: Evans, C.L., Laland, K.N., Carpenter, M. & Kendal, R.L. (2017). Selective copying of the majority suggests children are broadly “optimal-” rather than “over-” imitators. Developmental Science 21(5): e12637, which has been published in final form at This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance With Wiley Terms and Conditions for self-archiving.
Date accepted:05 October 2017
Date deposited:10 October 2017
Date of first online publication:17 December 2017
Date first made open access:17 December 2018

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