The evolution of social learning rules: payoff-biased and frequency-dependent biased transmission

J Theor Biol. 2009 Sep 21;260(2):210-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2009.05.029. Epub 2009 Jun 6.


Humans and other animals do not use social learning indiscriminately, rather, natural selection has favoured the evolution of social learning rules that make selective use of social learning to acquire relevant information in a changing environment. We present a gene-culture coevolutionary analysis of a small selection of such rules (unbiased social learning, payoff-biased social learning and frequency-dependent biased social learning, including conformism and anti-conformism) in a population of asocial learners where the environment is subject to a constant probability of change to a novel state. We define conditions under which each rule evolves to a genetically polymorphic equilibrium. We find that payoff-biased social learning may evolve under high levels of environmental variation if the fitness benefit associated with the acquired behaviour is either high or low but not of intermediate value. In contrast, both conformist and anti-conformist biases can become fixed when environment variation is low, whereupon the mean fitness in the population is higher than for a population of asocial learners. Our examination of the population dynamics reveals stable limit cycles under conformist and anti-conformist biases and some highly complex dynamics including chaos. Anti-conformists can out-compete conformists when conditions favour a low equilibrium frequency of the learned behaviour. We conclude that evolution, punctuated by the repeated successful invasion of different social learning rules, should continuously favour a reduction in the equilibrium frequency of asocial learning, and propose that, among competing social learning rules, the dominant rule will be the one that can persist with the lowest frequency of asocial learning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Culture
  • Learning*
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Models, Psychological
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Conformity