Trusting the experts: The domain-specificity of prestige-biased social learning


Prestige-biased social learning (henceforth “prestige-bias”) occurs when individuals predominantly choose to learn from a prestigious member of their group, i.e. someone who has gained attention, respect and admiration for their success in some domain. Prestige-bias is proposed as an adaptive social-learning strategy as it provides a short-cut to identifying successful group members, without having to assess each person’s success individually. Previous work has documented prestige-bias and verified that it is used adaptively. However, the domain-specificity and generality of prestige-bias has not yet been explicitly addressed experimentally. By domain-specific prestige-bias we mean that individuals choose to learn from a prestigious model only within the domain of expertise in which the model acquired their prestige. By domain-general prestige-bias we mean that individuals choose to learn from prestigious models in general, regardless of the domain in which their prestige was earned. To distinguish between domain specific and domain general prestige we ran an online experiment (n = 397) in which participants could copy each other to score points on a general-knowledge quiz with varying topics (domains). Prestige in our task was an emergent property of participants’ copying behaviour. We found participants overwhelmingly preferred domain-specific (same topic) prestige cues to domain-general (across topic) prestige cues. However, when only domain-general or cross-domain (different topic) cues were available, participants overwhelmingly favoured domain-general cues. Finally, when given the choice between cross-domain prestige cues and randomly generated Player IDs, participants favoured cross-domain prestige cues. These results suggest participants were sensitive to the source of prestige, and that they preferred domain-specific cues even though these cues were based on fewer samples (being calculated from one topic) than the domain-general cues (being calculated from all topics). We suggest that the extent to which people employ a domain-specific or domain-general prestige-bias may depend on their experience and understanding of the relationships between domains.