Social Learning: People See, People Do/ Monkey See, Monkey Do

It has been studied and proven that human beings learn socially. We observe that it is right and polite to hold the door open for others instead of slamming it in their faces and we learn that you don’t cause a loud ruckus in a crowded library (especially during finals week) or you will be hated by everyone in there.  These are not lessons we are told explicitly; rather these are lessons we learn through observing the behavior of other humans. Similarly, animals learn socially just as we do.

In a study reported on by The New York Times, researchers discovered that monkeys learned socially. The monkeys had been previously classically conditioned to only eat pink or blue-dyed corn and to shun the other colored corn. When the monkeys were moved to a different location in which the other colored corn was the corn that the local monkeys were conditioned to eat, the pink and blue-dyed corn eating monkeys switched to eating the colored corn that the local monkeys were eating.

Humpback whales have also demonstrated that they socially learn, as reported in this article on National Geographic. A renegade humpback whale in the Gulf of Maine made a new method in catching fish that was much different than the normal routine. Soon enough, 40% of humpback whales have adopted the practice to catch their dinner.

These phenomena can be understood through Social Learning: An Introduction to Mechanisms, Methods, and Models, a new book on social learning that is available this summer.

Many animals, including humans, acquire valuable skills and knowledge by copying others. Scientists refer to this as social learning. It is one of the most exciting and rapidly developing areas of behavioral research and sits at the interface of many academic disciplines, including biology, experimental psychology, economics, and cognitive neuroscience. Social Learning provides a comprehensive, practical guide to the research methods of this important emerging field. William Hoppitt and Kevin Laland define the mechanisms thought to underlie social learning and demonstrate how to distinguish them experimentally in the laboratory. They present techniques for detecting and quantifying social learning in nature, including statistical modeling of the spatial distribution of behavior traits. They also describe the latest theory and empirical findings on social learning strategies, and introduce readers to mathematical methods and models used in the study of cultural evolution. This book is an indispensable tool for researchers and an essential primer for students.

  • Provides a comprehensive, practical guide to social learning research
  • Combines theoretical and empirical approaches
  • Describes techniques for the laboratory and the field
  • Covers social learning mechanisms and strategies, statistical modeling techniques for field data, mathematical modeling of cultural evolution, and more

William Hoppitt is senior lecturer in zoology at Anglia Ruskin University. Kevin N. Laland is professor of behavioral and evolutionary biology at the University of St. Andrews. His books include Culture Evolves and Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution