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Cognitive flexibility supports the development of cumulative cultural learning in children

Cite this dataset

Rawlings, Bruce (2022). Cognitive flexibility supports the development of cumulative cultural learning in children [Dataset]. Dryad.


The scale of cumulative cultural evolution (CCE), the improvement of cultural traits over generations via social transmission, is widely believed to be one of humans’ most defining characteristics. Our capacity to build upon others' knowledge, skills, and technologies has produced the most diverse and complex technological repertoire on the planet. Despite growing interest in the field of CCE, the cognitive underpinnings supporting its development remain relatively understudied. In this study, we examined the role that cognitive flexibility plays in supporting cumulative cultural learning by studying U.S. children’s (N = 167, 3-5-year-olds) propensity to relinquish an inefficient solution to a problem in favor of a more efficient alternative. We also examined whether children would resist reverting back to earlier versions and omit redundant actions from previous behaviors. In contrast to previous work with chimpanzees, most children who first learned to solve a puzzlebox in a highly inefficient way switched to an observed, more efficient alternative. However, over multiple task interactions, 85% of children who did switch also reverted back to the original, inefficient method. Moreover, almost all children in a control condition (who first learned the efficient method before observing the inefficient method) switched to the inefficient method. This suggests that children were keen to explore an alternative modeled solution but were overall conservative in reverting to their first-learned method across subsequent task interactions. We discuss these findings in the context of their implications for the cognitive ontogeny of CCE.


John Templeton Foundation, Award: 40128

Templeton World Charity Foundation, Award: TWCF0312

National Science Foundation, Award: 1730678