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PLoS One. 2009;4(2):e4472. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004472. Epub 2009 Feb 18.

The maintenance of traditions in marmosets: individual habit, not social conformity? A field experiment.

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Department of Neurobiology and Cognition Research, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria.



Social conformity is a cornerstone of human culture because it accelerates and maintains the spread of behaviour within a group. Few empirical studies have investigated the role of social conformity in the maintenance of traditions despite an increasing body of literature on the formation of behavioural patterns in non-human animals. The current report presents a field experiment with free-ranging marmosets (Callithrix jacchus) which investigated whether social conformity is necessary for the maintenance of behavioural patterns within groups or whether individual effects such as habit formation would suffice.


Using a two-action apparatus, we established alternative behavioural patterns in six family groups composed of 36 individuals. These groups experienced only one technique during a training phase and were thereafter tested with two techniques available. The monkeys reliably maintained the trained method over a period of three weeks, despite discovering the alternative technique. Three additional groups were given the same number of sessions, but those 21 individuals could freely choose the method to obtain a reward. In these control groups, an overall bias towards one of the two methods was observed, but animals with a different preference did not adjust towards the group norm. Thirteen of the fifteen animals that discovered both techniques remained with the action with which they were initially successful, independent of the group preference and the type of action (Binomial test: exp. proportion: 0.5, p<0.01).


The results indicate that the maintenance of behavioural patterns within groups 1) could be explained by the first rewarded manipulation and subsequent habit formation and 2) do not require social conformity as a mechanism. After an initial spread of a behaviour throughout a group, this mechanism may lead to a superficial appearance of conformity without the involvement of such a socially and cognitively complex mechanism. This is the first time that such an experiment has been conducted with free-ranging primates.

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