I’ve always been interested in child psychology, probably because of all the years I spent teaching. The way that children pick up habits socially is amazing to see, especially because much of the time, no one explains it to them. They just observe and gradually implement it into their daily routines.

A new study from the University of Texas at Austin has found that children as young as pre-school age are able to pick up on these social and behavioral cues and adopt them with little trouble. The findings of the new study were published online in Cognition, and it offered new insight into how children learn the rituals and cultural practices of their communities.

"Attention to social cues and contextual information guides children's imitation, a key component of the development and transmission of cultural knowledge," says Cristine Legare, an assistant professor in psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and co-author of the study.

The study involved 259 participants aged three to six years old. The group of children watched videos of people preforming a task, like tapping pegs with a hammer on a pegboard in a certain sequence. The children either watched videos of people doing the task alone, or it showed people preforming the task with a partner. A verbal explanation at the end of the video told if the task was to achieve a goal or if the people were just engaged in group behavior.

After the videos, the children were asked to repeat the actions. The children that viewed two people preforming the task together or simultaneously were more likely to do the task exactly how the video showed. They often said that they did the actions that way because that’s what the video showed and they “had to do it the way they did.”

In contrast, the children that viewed only one person preforming the task, tended to repeat the motions any way they wanted says things like “I can do whatever I want,” or “I wanted to do it the way I want.”

After the demonstrations, it was clear the seeing two people in the video doing the work simultaneously made more of an impact and for the children. It demonstrated cultural and social behavior as well as physical work, and they were more likely to imitate the physical work more exactly when they also associated it with social and behavioral skills.

In conclusion, Legare says that "our findings show that children come to social learning tasks ready to interpret them flexibly as opportunities for learning rituals or outcome-oriented behavior.”

Source: University of Texas at Austin (2013, September 19). Young children quickly adopt ritualistic behavior. ScienceDaily.