City Research Online

Generic learning mechanisms can drive social inferences: The role of type frequency

Endress, A. & Ahmed, S. (2022). Generic learning mechanisms can drive social inferences: The role of type frequency. Memory and Cognition, 50(8), pp. 1694-1705. doi: 10.3758/s13421-022-01286-2


How do we form opinions about typical and morally acceptable behavior in other social groups despite variability in behavior? Similar learning problems arise during language acquisition, where learners need to infer grammatical rules (e.g., the walk/walk-ed past-tense) despite frequent exceptions (e.g., the go/went alternation). Such rules need to occur with many different words to be learned (i.e., they need a high type frequency). In contrast, frequent individual words do not lead to learning. Here, we ask whether similar principles govern social learning. Participants read a travel journal where a traveler observed behaviors in different imaginary cities. The behaviors were performed once by many distinct actors (high type frequency) or frequently by a single actor (low type frequency), and could be good, neutral or bad. We then asked participants how morally acceptable the behavior was (in general or for the visited city), and how widespread it was in that city. We show that an ideal observer model estimating the prevalence of behaviors is only sensitive to the behaviors’ type frequency, but not to how often they are performed. Empirically, participants rated high type frequency behaviors as more morally acceptable more prevalent than low type frequency behaviors. They also rated good behaviors as more acceptable and prevalent than neutral or bad behaviors. These results suggest that generic learning mechanisms and epistemic biases constrain social learning, and that type frequency can drive inferences about groups. To combat stereotypes, high type frequency behaviors might thus be more effective than frequently appearing individual role models.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit
Publisher Keywords: Social learning; Language Acquisition; Type Frequency; Conformity; Moral Decision Making; Domain-generality
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Psychology
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