Majority rulesBy Massie Santos Ballon
Philippine Daily Inquirer
During your most recent family get-together, when you said hello to an older relative such as an aunt or grandparent, chances are you either kissed their cheek or pressed their hand to your forehead. The method of greeting you used depended on which behavior you learned as a child watching your parents, siblings and cousins saying hello to other family members.
A recent study led by German researchers suggests that social behaviors such as greetings are an example of things people learn to do because “everyone else is doing it.” What their work suggests, the study authors said, is these behaviors can be picked up at a very early age.
“I think few people would have expected to find that two-year-olds are already influenced by the majority,” said study first author Daniel Haun of the Max Planck Institutes for Evolutionary Anthropology and Psycholinguistics in a statement. “Parents and teachers should be aware of these dynamics in children’s peer interactions.”
Series of tests
People aren’t the only ones who learn to copy the social behaviors of the majority; other studies have shown that other primates such as chimpanzees can also be influenced by what others in their social group are doing. To learn more about how the majority can influence social behaviors, the researchers conducted a series of tests on a group of two-year-old children, and compared their results to those from older orangutans and chimpanzees.
The tests devised by Haun and his colleagues involved having the children and monkeys watching a small group that represented the “crowd” dropping balls into a box that had three sections, each painted a different color. Three of these group members acted as the “majority,” and they all dropped the balls they carried into the same section of the box, receiving a reward each time. The fourth member of the group, however, was trained to like a different section of the box, and also received a reward after dropping balls into that particular area.
Influenced by the majority
After watching the demonstration, each of the children, orangutans and chimpanzees was allowed to go to the box and drop three balls in. The researchers found that the children and chimps favored copying the majority’s actions, dropping their own balls into the same colored sections of the box that three others before them had done. The orangutans however, didn’t seem to be influenced by the demonstrations, preferring to randomly drop balls into different sections of the box.
A second set of experiments involving a different group of children, chimpanzees and orangutans was done involving the same box. This time the study participants got to watch someone either drop three balls into the same section of the box, or else just drop a single ball in a section of the box. As had happened in the previous test, most of the children repeated the action they saw the most, in this case choosing to drop their balls in the same section of the box as the model had done. Both the chimpanzees and orangutans displayed no preferences, suggesting that they were not influenced by the model’s behavior.
The team offered a possible explanation in their conclusion as to why the children tended to follow behavioral examples set by others. In his statement, Haun said that this human tendency to go with the flow may have developed over time as a way for people to pass on “relatively safe, reliable and productive behavioral strategies.”
The study was published online April 12 in the journal Current Biology.
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