The learning of action sequences through social transmission

Andrew Carl Zanton Whalen, Daniel Cownden, Kevin Neville Laland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Previous empirical work on animal social learning has found that many species lack the ability to learn entire action sequences solely through reliance on social information. Conversely, acquiring action sequences through asocial learning can be difficult due to the large number of potential sequences arising from even a small number of base actions. In spite of this, several studies report that some primates use action sequences in the wild. We investigate how social information can be integrated with asocial learning to facilitate the learning of action sequences. We formalize this problem by examining how learners using temporal difference learning, a widely applicable model of reinforcement learning, can combine social cues with their own experiences to acquire action sequences. The learning problem is modeled as a Markov decision process. The learning of nettle processing by mountain gorillas serves as a focal example. Through simulations, we find that the social facilitation of component actions can combine with individual learning to facilitate the acquisition of action sequences. Our analysis illustrates that how even simple forms of social learning, combined with asocial learning, generate substantially faster learning of action sequences compared to asocial processes alone, and that the benefits of social information increase with the length of the action sequence and the number of base actions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1093-1103
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number5
Early online date26 May 2015
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2015


  • Social learning
  • Sequence learning
  • Temporal difference learning
  • Markov decision process
  • Chaining


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