How do we distinguish learning from our friends from learning because our friends happen to be around? When I was younger, Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64 was the game to play, but I was sadly N64-less. Did I learn how to play Goldeneye because my friends were good at it and showed me, or because whenever I was around them, Goldeneye was available for me to play? But here’s a fact: I suck at Goldeneye. If I learned anything from my friends vis-a-vis Goldeneye, it was how to be humble in the face of continual defeat.
When animals are foraging for food, they face a similar problem. If they forage on their own, they don’t lose any of their reward (like their self-respect) to other animals. But by foraging socially they are able to increase the likelihood that they will find some food.
One of the biggest problems that social foraging can solve is that of risk-aversion: the preference for guaranteed rewards over risky ones, even when risky ones will be more rewarding over the long-run. In many cases, this preference is a simple reflection of the learning that all animals undergo. Risky rewards have both very large and very small rewards. When given the choice between multiple options, a string of bad luck on the risky option will lead an animal that learns to give up that choice and stick with the less risky option.
Yet learning dynamics are slightly different when an animal is surrounded by other animals. Animals are not identical clones of each other (usually) but have a variety of personal preferences for risk and reward. If you plop sparrows in front of both more and less risky options, of course they’ll generally prefer the risky options. But sparrows come in groups! And when in groups, they can be scroungers, hanging back and waiting to see what others are doing. And this lets them take advantage both of the range of group preferences as well as the range of learning in the group.
Interestingly, individuals only learn about the desirability of an option when they were the ones to have chosen the option but not when they watched (and joined) another individual making a choice. I’m not sure if there is a lesson here on group learning? Perhaps it is better for the group to keep their knowledge uncorrelated so that it is combined their knowledge will be as diverse as possible? But either way, they are not socially learning, not learning how to do something by watching another animal. Rather, they are learning by being in a social group that allows them to take advantage of the learning of each individual in the group.
Ilan T., Katsnelson E., Motro U., Feldman M.W. & Lotem A. (2013). The role of beginner’s luck in learning to prefer risky patches by socially foraging house sparrows, Behavioral Ecology, 24 (6) 1398-1406. DOI: 10.1093/beheco/art079