Why is social learning important?

Animal social learning is the process whereby animals acquire skills and knowledge by observing or interacting with other animals. Recent years have witnessed an explosion of interest in this topic, stemming from a number of sources:

1. Neuroscientists, psychologists and animal behaviourists seek to understand the biological and psychological bases of cognitive processing using animal models, while social learning is of interest to ethologists and behavioural ecologists because it allows animals to make adaptive decisions and to learn about their environments efficiently.

2. Researchers studying robotics and artificial intelligence are paying attention to animal social learning as part of endeavours to develop ‘imitating robots’ and related technology.

3. Evolutionary biologists have recognised that social learning can affect evolutionary dynamics and equilibria, and have explored cultural evolution, while biological anthropologists and archaeologists recognise cultural transmission as playing a critical role in human evolution.

4. Economists are increasingly interested in ‘imitation’, specifically in whom one imitates, since it potentially allows individuals to economise on computational costs, cash in on superior information and increase learning efficiency.

5. The findings from animal social learning research can be applied to enhance conservation goals, by exploiting social learning methods to train life skills into captive-reared animals, thereby improving the efficiency of stocking and reintroductions.