Claidière N, Bowler M, Whiten A (2012) Evidence for Weak or Linear Conformity but Not for Hyper-Conformity in an Everyday Social Learning Context. PLoS ONE 7(2): e30970. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030970
Conformity is thought to be an important force in cultural evolution because it has the potential to stabilize cooperation in large groups, potentiate group selection and thus explain uniquely human behaviors. However, the effects of such conformity on cultural and biological evolution will depend much on the way individuals are influenced by the frequency of alternative behavioral options witnessed. Theoretical modeling has suggested that only what we refer to as ‘hyper-conformity’, an exaggerated tendency to perform the most frequent behavior witnessed in other individuals, is able to increase within-group homogeneity and between-group diversity, for instance. Empirically however, few experiments have addressed how the frequency of behavior witnessed affects behavior. Accordingly we performed an experiment to test for the presence of conformity in a natural situation with humans. Visitors to a Zoo exhibit were invited to write or draw answers to questions on A5 cards and potentially win a small prize. We manipulated the proportion of existing writings versus drawings visible to visitors and measured the proportion of written cards submitted. We found a strong and significant effect of the proportion of text displayed on the proportion of text in the answers, thus demonstrating social learning. We show that this effect is approximately linear, with potentially a small, weak-conformist component but no hyper-conformist one. The present experiment therefore provides evidence for linear conformity in humans in a very natural context.