Why copy others? Insights from the social learning strategies tournament

Science. 2010 Apr 9;328(5975):208-13. doi: 10.1126/science.1184719.


Social learning (learning through observation or interaction with other individuals) is widespread in nature and is central to the remarkable success of humanity, yet it remains unclear why copying is profitable and how to copy most effectively. To address these questions, we organized a computer tournament in which entrants submitted strategies specifying how to use social learning and its asocial alternative (for example, trial-and-error learning) to acquire adaptive behavior in a complex environment. Most current theory predicts the emergence of mixed strategies that rely on some combination of the two types of learning. In the tournament, however, strategies that relied heavily on social learning were found to be remarkably successful, even when asocial information was no more costly than social information. Social learning proved advantageous because individuals frequently demonstrated the highest-payoff behavior in their repertoire, inadvertently filtering information for copiers. The winning strategy (discountmachine) relied nearly exclusively on social learning and weighted information according to the time since acquisition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cooperative Behavior
  • Cultural Evolution
  • Games, Experimental
  • Humans
  • Imitative Behavior*
  • Learning*
  • Linear Models
  • Observation
  • Problem Solving
  • Social Behavior*
  • Software