Skill learning and the evolution of social learning mechanisms

Daniel J. van der Post, Mathias Franz, Kevin Neville Laland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Background. Social learning is potentially advantageous, but evolutionary theory predicts that (i) its benefits may be self-limiting because social learning can lead to information parasitism, and (ii) these limitations can be mitigated via forms of selective copying. However, these findings arise from a functional approach in which learning mechanisms are not specified, and which assumes that social learning avoids the costs of asocial learning but does not produce information about the environment. Whether these findings generalize to all kinds of social learning remains to be established. Using a detailed multi-scale evolutionary model, we investigate the payoffs and information production processes of specific social learning mechanisms (including local enhancement, stimulus enhancement and observational learning) and their evolutionary consequences in the context of skill learning in foraging groups.
Results. We find that local enhancement does not benefit foraging success, but could evolve as a side-effect of grouping. In contrast, stimulus enhancement and observational learning can be beneficial across a wide range of environmental conditions because they generate opportunities for new learning outcomes.
Conclusions. In contrast to much existing theory, we find that the functional outcomes of social learning are mechanism specific. Social learning nearly always produces information about the environment, and does not always avoid the costs of asocial learning or support information parasitism. Our study supports work emphasizing the value of incorporating mechanistic detail in functional analyses.
Original languageEnglish
Article number166
Number of pages19
JournalBMC Evolutionary Biology
Publication statusPublished - 24 Aug 2016


  • Multi-scale approach
  • Agent-based model
  • Information parasitism
  • Mechanism specificity
  • Group foragers
  • Self-organization


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