MPRG Naturalistic Social Cognition

How do infants and young children learn about the world around them? This overarching question is the foundation for the research carried out by the Max Planck Research Group Naturalistic Social Cognition. We use an interdisciplinary approach to examine social learning and social cognition in naturalistic contexts by combining theory and methodologies from cognitive science, developmental psychology, evolutionary biology, and biological anthropology.

Research period: September 1, 2014, to June 30, 2023.

Our work is primarily focused on the social learning strategies that humans use to acquire information about plants over the course of infancy and early childhood. For many of us today, plants are peripheral to our everyday lives. However, across evolutionary time, learning which plants could be eaten and which plants were dangerous would have been critical to human survival. The research projects conducted by our group examine the ways in which this ancient problem has left its mark on our modern minds.

The research conducted by the Max Planck Research Group Naturalistic Social Cognition is organized around three main topic areas: 1) the behavioral avoidance strategies infants and young children use to mitigate plant dangers (e.g., poisoning and physical injury), 2) the selective social learning rules infants and young children use to acquire information about plants (e.g., edibility), and 3) the operation of these plant-relevant behavioral strategies and learning rules “in the wild.” We use a combination of laboratory studies and naturalistic observations, as well as collaborative cross-cultural and comparative studies, to investigate these topic areas.

Our research findings provide a window into the complex interplay of evolutionary and developmental factors that build social learning processes. These critical components of human cognitive architecture enable the accumulation and intergenerational transmission of cultural knowledge. This is one of the many ways in which humans flexibly adapt to our environment and allows us to survive and thrive in environments across the world.

The research group started its work in January 2015.

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