Learning how to behave: Cognitive learning processes account for asymmetries in adaptation to social norms

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Changes to social settings caused by migration, cultural change or pandemics force us to adapt to new social norms. Social norms provide groups of individuals with behavioural prescriptions and therefore can be inferred by observing their behaviour. This work aims to examine how cognitive learning processes affect adaptation and learning of new social norms. Using a multiplayer game, I found that participants initially complied with various social norms exhibited by the behaviour of bot-players. After gaining experience with one norm, adaptation to a new norm was observed in all cases but one, where an active-harm norm was resistant to adaptation. Using computational learning models, I found that active behaviours were learned faster than omissions, and harmful behaviours were more readily attributed to all group members than beneficial behaviours. These results provide a cognitive foundation for learning and adaptation to descriptive norms and can inform future investigations of group-level learning and cross-cultural adaptation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number0293
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1952
StatePublished - 9 Jun 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors.


  • reinforcement learning
  • social cognition
  • social norms

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


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