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Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 1994 May;69(2):207-31.

Social learning in animals: categories and mechanisms.

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Department of Psychology, University College London.


There has been relatively little research on the psychological mechanisms of social learning. This may be due, in part, to the practice of distinguishing categories of social learning in relation to ill-defined mechanisms (Davis, 1973; Galef, 1988). This practice both makes it difficult to identify empirically examples of different types of social learning, and gives the false impression that the mechanisms responsible for social learning are clearly understood. It has been proposed that social learning phenomena be subsumed within the categorization scheme currently used by investigators of asocial learning. This scheme distinguishes categories of learning according to observable conditions, namely, the type of experience that gives rise to a change in an animal (single stimulus vs. stimulus-stimulus relationship vs. response-reinforcer relationship), and the type of behaviour in which this change is detected (response evocation vs. learnability) (Rescorla, 1988). Specifically, three alignments have been proposed: (i) stimulus enhancement with single stimulus learning, (ii) observational conditioning with stimulus-stimulus learning, or Pavlovian conditioning, and (iii) observational learning with response-reinforcer learning, or instrumental conditioning. If, as the proposed alignments suggest, the conditions of social and asocial learning are the same, there is some reason to believe that the mechanisms underlying the two sets of phenomena are also the same. This is so if one makes the relatively uncontroversial assumption that phenomena which occur under similar conditions tend to be controlled by similar mechanisms. However, the proposed alignments are intended to be a set of hypotheses, rather than conclusions, about the mechanisms of social learning; as a basis for further research in which animal learning theory is applied to social learning. A concerted attempt to apply animal learning theory to social learning, to find out whether the same mechanisms are responsible for social and asocial learning, could lead both to refinements of the general theory, and to a better understanding of the mechanisms of social learning. There are precedents for these positive developments in research applying animal learning theory to food aversion learning (e.g. Domjan, 1983; Rozin & Schull, 1988) and imprinting (e.g. Bolhuis, de Vox & Kruit, 1990; Hollis, ten Cate & Bateson, 1991). Like social learning, these phenomena almost certainly play distinctive roles in the antogeny of adaptive behaviour, and they are customarily regarded as 'special kinds' of learning (Shettleworth, 1993).(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS).

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