Adult learners in a novel environment use prestige-biased social learning


Social learning (learning from others) is evolutionarily adaptive under a wide range of conditions and is a long-standing area of interest across the social and biological sciences. One social-learning mechanism derived from cultural evolutionary theory is prestige bias, which allows a learner in a novel environment to quickly and inexpensively gather information as to the potentially best teachers, thus maximizing his or her chances of acquiring adaptive behavior. Learners provide deference to high-status individuals in order to ingratiate themselves with, and gain extended exposure to, that individual. We examined prestige-biased social transmission in a laboratory experiment in which participants designed arrowheads and attempted to maximize hunting success, measured in caloric return. Our main findings are that (1) participants preferentially learned from prestigious models (defined as those models at whom others spent longer times looking), and (2) prestige information and success-related information were used to the same degree, even though the former was less useful in this experiment than the latter. We also found that (3) participants were most likely to use social learning over individual (asocial) learning when they were performing poorly, in line with previous experiments, and (4) prestige information was not used more often following environmental shifts, contrary to predictions. These results support previous discussions of the key role that prestige-biased transmission plays in social learning.

Evolutionary Psychology 10, 147470491201000309.