Subsistence styles shape human social learning strategies


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.

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


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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.

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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.

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Correspondence to Luke Glowacki or Lucas Molleman.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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

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Glowacki, L., Molleman, L. Subsistence styles shape human social learning strategies. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0098 (2017).

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