Information is spread throughout societies by the people in them, and cultural evolution scholars debate about how it’s done. There are two main methods of information transfer and the debate surrounds which is the predominate approach – vertical transfer or horizontal. “Vertical means that it’s passed on from parents to children,” says Amanda Lucas, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Exeter, “Horizontal implies that you’re learning more from the people of your own generation.” And there are advantages to both.

In an environment that doesn’t change much, learning primarily vertically, from parents and the like who already have the necessary information, is useful. In an environment that does change, people in your own generation as a group will likely hold more relevant information than only your parents will and horizontal transfer would make the most sense. However, the predominance of each tactic is up for debate and how children utilize each method while they learn is largely unknown. But a study sheds some light.

Lucas and her colleagues observed how children incorporate new information by having different people show them how to solve a puzzle box in order to retrieve a prize. Children between the ages of five and ten were introduced to the idea of the puzzle box and then shown how to solve it by two people – their mother and either someone presented to them as just a stranger who might be able to help or an expert who was very good at solving puzzle boxes. Their mother showed them one method and the stranger or expert showed them a different way of solving it. The researchers then observed which method the children used.

Is mom better than an expert?

Children aged five to six almost always chose their mother’s method, regardless of whether they were comparing it to a stranger’s method or an expert’s. Before finding out if they’d actually successfully solved their own puzzle box, the children were asked who was better at solving them, their mom or the other person. When the other person was a stranger, the kids largely said that their mom was better. But when the other person was an expert, almost every child said that the expert was better than their mom even though they had chosen to copy their mom over the expert.

Those findings shifted though when older children were tested. For seven- to eight-year-olds, they began largely copying the expert but not the stranger over their mom. And interestingly, nine- to ten-year-olds did something entirely different. “They totally did their own thing,” says Lucas. Almost all of them chose an entirely different method from what their mother or the other person showed them.

So, within the span of just five years, children are using three different methods to inform their actions. “Children do, with development, seem to become aware that their mom isn’t always the best copy and they start to prioritize expertise,” says Lucas.

And even ignoring others’ methods can be evolutionarily advantageous. As Lucas explains, it doesn’t always make sense to start from scratch if you have some background understanding of the problem at hand. If you’ve encountered this or a similar situation before and have confidence in your abilities, trusting your own knowledge can be a good idea. Which is a strategy that Lucas would like to explore more in future studies.

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