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J R Soc Interface. 2011 Nov 7;8(64):1604-15. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2011.0138. Epub 2011 Apr 20.

Evolution of social learning when high expected payoffs are associated with high risk of failure.

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Department of Zoology, Faculty of Life Sciences, Tel-Aviv University, Tel-Aviv 69978, Israel.


In an environment where the availability of resources sought by a forager varies greatly, individual foraging is likely to be associated with a high risk of failure. Foragers that learn where the best sources of food are located are likely to develop risk aversion, causing them to avoid the patches that are in fact the best; the result is sub-optimal behaviour. Yet, foragers living in a group may not only learn by themselves, but also by observing others. Using evolutionary agent-based computer simulations of a social foraging game, we show that in an environment where the most productive resources occur with the lowest probability, socially acquired information is strongly favoured over individual experience. While social learning is usually regarded as beneficial because it filters out maladaptive behaviours, the advantage of social learning in a risky environment stems from the fact that it allows risk aversion to be circumvented and the best food source to be revisited despite repeated failures. Our results demonstrate that the consequences of individual risk aversion may be better understood within a social context and suggest one possible explanation for the strong preference for social information over individual experience often observed in both humans and animals.

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