The evolutionary basis of human social learning

T. J.H. Morgan, L. E. Rendell, M. Ehn, W. Hoppitt, K. N. Laland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

220 Scopus citations


Humans are characterized by an extreme dependence on culturally transmitted information. Such dependence requires the complex integration of social and asocial information to generate effective learning and decision making. Recent formal theory predicts that natural selection should favour adaptive learning strategies, but relevant empirical work is scarce and rarely examines multiple strategies or tasks.We tested nine hypotheses derived from theoretical models, running a series of experiments investigating factors affecting when and how humans use social information, and whether such behaviour is adaptive, across several computer-based tasks. The number of demonstrators, consensus among demonstrators, confidence of subjects, task difficulty, number of sessions, cost of asocial learning, subject performance and demonstrator performance all influenced subjects' use of social information, and did so adaptively. Our analysis provides strong support for the hypothesis that human social learning is regulated by adaptive learning rules.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)653-662
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1729
StatePublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Asocial learning
  • Conformity
  • Consensus
  • Copying
  • Social learning
  • Social learning strategy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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