Subsistence styles shape human social learning strategies

Abstract

Social learning is a fundamental element of human cognition. Learning from others facilitates the transmission of information that helps individuals and groups rapidly adjust to new environments and underlies adaptive cultural evolution16. While basic human propensities for social learning are traditionally assumed to be species-universal1,7, recent empirical studies show that they vary between individuals and populations813. Yet the causes of this variation remain poorly understood9. Here we show that interdependence in everyday social and economic activities can strongly amplify social learning. Using an experimental decision-making task, we examine individual versus social learning in three recently diverged populations of a single-ethnicity group, whose subsistence styles require varying degrees of interdependence. Interdependent pastoralists and urban dwellers have markedly higher propensities for social learning than independent horticulturalists, who predominantly rely on individual payoff information. These results indicate that everyday social and economic practices can mould human social learning strategies and they highlight the flexibility of human cognition to change with local ecology. Our study further suggests that shifts in subsistence styles—which can occur when humans inhabit new habitats or cultural niches2—can alter reliance on social learning and may therefore impact the ability of human societies to adapt to novel circumstances.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: The decision-making task.
Figure 2: Requests for social information by subsistence style.
Figure 3: Responses to social and individual information.

References

  1. 1

    Boyd, R., Richerson, P. J. & Henrich, J. The cultural niche: why social learning is essential for human adaptation. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 10918–10925 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Henrich, J. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (Princeton Univ. Press, 2016).

    Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Hoppitt, W. & Laland, K. N. Social Learning: An Introduction to Mechanisms, Methods, and Models (Princeton Univ. Press, 2013).

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Mesoudi, A. Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences (Univ. Chicago Press, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Dean, L. G., Kendal, R. L., Schapiro, S. J., Thierry, B. & Laland, K. N. Identification of the social and cognitive processes underlying human cumulative culture. Science 335, 1114–1118 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Tomasello, M. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Harvard Univ. Press, 1999).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Enquist, M., Eriksson, K. & Ghirlanda, S. Critical social learning: a solution to Rogers’s paradox of nonadaptive culture. Am. Anthropol. 109, 727–734 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Efferson, C. et al. Learning, productivity, and noise: an experimental study of cultural transmission on the Bolivian Altiplano. Evol. Hum. Behav. 28, 11–17 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Mesoudi, A., Chang, L., Dall, S. R. X. & Thornton, A. The evolution of individual and cultural variation in social learning. Trends Ecol. Evol. 31, 215–225 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Mesoudi, A., Chang, L., Murray, K. & Lu, H. J. Higher frequency of social learning in China than in the West shows cultural variation in the dynamics of cultural evolution. Proc. R. Soc. B 282, 20142209 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Molleman, L., van den Berg, P. & Weissing, F. J. Consistent individual differences in human social learning strategies. Nat. Commun. 5, 3570 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Toelch, U., Bruce, M. J., Newson, L., Richerson, P. J. & Reader, S. M. Individual consistency and flexibility in human social information use. Proc. R. Soc. B 281, 20132864 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    van den Berg, P., Molleman, L. & Weissing, F. J. Focus on the success of others leads to selfish behavior. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 2912–2917 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Boyd, R. & Richerson, P. J. Why does culture increase human adaptability? Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 16, 125–143 (1995).

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Mesoudi, A. & Whiten, A. The multiple roles of cultural transmission experiments in understanding human cultural evolution. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 363, 3489–3501 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Rand, D. G. et al. Social heuristics shape intuitive cooperation. Nat. Commun. 5, 3677 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Talhelm, T. et al. Large-scale psychological differences within China explained by rice versus wheat agriculture. Science 344, 603–608 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Uskul, A. K., Kitayama, S. & Nisbett, R. E. Ecocultural basis of cognition: farmers and fishermen are more holistic than herders. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 8552–8556 (2008).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Henrich, J. et al. In search of Homo economicus: behavioral experiments in 15 small-scale societies. Am. Econ. Rev. 91, 73–78 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Henrich, J. et al. Costly punishment across human societies. Science 312, 1767–1770 (2006).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Tornay, S. in Peoples and Cultures of the Ethio-Sudan Borderlands (ed. Bender, M. L. ) 137–178 (Michigan State Univ., 1981).

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Yntiso, G. in Creating and Crossing Boundaries in Ethiopia: Dynamics of Social Categorization and Differentiation (ed. Epple, S. ) 73–91 (Lit Verlag, 2014).

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Glowacki, L. & Wrangham, R. Warfare and reproductive success in a tribal population. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 348–353 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Glowacki, L. et al. Formation of raiding parties for intergroup violence is mediated by social network structure. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 12114–12119 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Glowacki, L. & von Rueden, C. Leadership solves collective action problems in small-scale societies. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 370, 20150010 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Boyd, R. & Richerson, P. J. Culture and The Evolutionary Process (Univ. Chicago Press, 1985).

    Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Efferson, C., Lalive, R., Richerson, P. J., McElreath, R. & Lubell, M. Conformists and mavericks: the empirics of frequency-dependent cultural transmission. Evol. Hum. Behav. 29, 56–64 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Heyes, C. Grist and mills: on the cultural origins of cultural learning. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 367, 2181–2191 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Derex, M., Beugin, M.-P., Godelle, B. & Raymond, M. Experimental evidence for the influence of group size on cultural complexity. Nature 503, 389–391 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Derex, M. & Boyd, R. Partial connectivity increases cultural accumulation within groups. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 2982–2987 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    Grove, M. Population density, mobility, and cultural transmission. J. Archaeol. Sci. 74, 75–84 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32

    McElreath, R. et al. Applying evolutionary models to the laboratory study of social learning. Evol. Hum. Behav. 26, 483–508 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33

    Arechar, A., Gaechter, S. & Molleman, L. Conducting interactive experiments online. SSRNhttp://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2884409 (2017).

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank the administration of the South Omo Zone and Nyangatom woreda, especially L. Kakuta for logistical support. We thank P. van den Berg, D. van Dolder, S. Gächter, M. Hoffman, R. McElreath, M. Singh, T. Weber, O. Weisel, K. Zhao and the members of the Max Planck Department for Human Behavior, Ecology and Culture for discussions and comments. Funding was provided by The Eric M. Mindich Research Fund for the Foundations of Human Behavior and the Mind Brain and Behavior Interfaculty Initiative at Harvard University. Support to L.G. through the ANR Labex IAST is gratefully acknowledged. L.M. gratefully acknowledges support by the European Research Council (ERC-Adg 295707) and the Open Research Area grant ASTA ID: 176. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

L.G. and L.M. jointly designed the study. L.G. collected the data and L.M. analysed the data. Both authors wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Luke Glowacki or Lucas Molleman.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Notes 1 and 2, Supplementary Figures 1–4, Supplementary Tables 1–4, Supplementary References. (PDF 532 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Glowacki, L., Molleman, L. Subsistence styles shape human social learning strategies. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0098 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-017-0098

Download citation

Further reading