Young children, much like adults, possess a rudimentary understanding of social groups and categories, but do not pay attention to nearly as many distinctions that separate us from each others, than we, adults do. In this study, we show that one of the things they are looking for in categorizating others is whether another person’s behavior conforms to the cultural conventions.
This notion can be tested in a function learning context. There are existing findings, amongst others from our own research group (see: function learning in the cultural space – the principle of mutual exclusivity) that show that children restrict learning cultural functions from people who belong to their own cultural group (e.g. native speakers). Consequently, if the use of a tool is demonstrated by a foreigner, that observation will not result in function learning, and will not evoke scale errors either. We tested this prediction in 3-year-old children. Participants observed as a native or a German speaker used a novel tool for achieving a goal, then they had the opportunity to reach that goal themselves. They had two tools to choose from, neither exactly the same as the one used by the model. There was a tool that looked the same, but was too large to obtain the goal successfully, and a tool that looked different but was suitable for goal achievement due to its size. Our findings show that the rate of scale errors (choosing the identical looking but too large tool) was indeed higher in the native condition. This indicates that the phenomenon of scale errors indeed originates from the prescriptive nature of cultural knowledge and humans’ strong motivation to belong to their cultural group
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