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Front Psychol. 2011 Jul 12;2:160. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00160. eCollection 2011.

Social performance cues induce behavioral flexibility in humans.

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  • 1Behavioural Biology, Department of Biology and Helmholtz Institute, Utrecht University Utrecht, Netherlands.


Behavioral flexibility allows individuals to react to environmental changes, but changing established behavior carries costs, with unknown benefits. Individuals may thus modify their behavioral flexibility according to the prevailing circumstances. Social information provided by the performance level of others provides one possible cue to assess the potential benefits of changing behavior, since out-performance in similar circumstances indicates that novel behaviors (innovations) are potentially useful. We demonstrate that social performance cues, in the form of previous players' scores in a problem-solving computer game, influence behavioral flexibility. Participants viewed only performance indicators, not the innovative behavior of others. While performance cues (high, low, or no scores) had little effect on innovation discovery rates, participants that viewed high scores increased their utilization of innovations, allowing them to exploit the virtual environment more effectively than players viewing low or no scores. Perceived conspecific performance can thus shape human decisions to adopt novel traits, even when the traits employed cannot be copied. This simple mechanism, social performance feedback, could be a driver of both the facultative adoption of innovations and cumulative cultural evolution, processes critical to human success.


aspiration level; cultural transmission; cumulative cultural evolution; exploration–exploitation; innovation; performance feedback; social information; social learning

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