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Learn Behav. 2004 Feb;32(1):4-14.

Social learning strategies.

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Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, School of Biology, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland.


In most studies of social learning in animals, no attempt has been made to examine the nature of the strategy adopted by animals when they copy others. Researchers have expended considerable effort in exploring the psychological processes that underlie social learning and amassed extensive data banks recording purported social learning in the field, but the contexts under which animals copy others remain unexplored. Yet, theoretical models used to investigate the adaptive advantages of social learning lead to the conclusion that social learning cannot be indiscriminate and that individuals should adopt strategies that dictate the circumstances under which they copy others and from whom they learn. In this article, I discuss a number of possible strategies that are predicted by theoretical analyses, including copy when uncertain, copy the majority, and copy if better, and consider the empirical evidence in support of each, drawing from both the animal and human social learning literature. Reliance on social learning strategies may be organized hierarchically, their being employed by animals when unlearned and asocially learned strategies prove ineffective but before animals take recourse in innovation.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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