Competition for resources can explain patterns of social and individual learning in nature


In nature, animals often ignore socially available information despite the multiple theoretical benefits of social learning over individual trial-and-error learning. Using information filtered by others is quicker, more efficient and less risky than randomly sampling the environment. To explain the mix of social and individual learning used by animals in nature, most models penalize the quality of socially derived information as either out of date, of poor fidelity or costly to acquire. Competition for limited resources, a fundamental evolutionary force, provides a compelling, yet hitherto overlooked, explanation for the evolution of mixed-learning strategies. We present a novel model of social learning that incorporates competition and demonstrates that (i) social learning is favoured when competition is weak, but (ii) if competition is strong social learning is favoured only when resource quality is highly variable and there is low environmental turnover. The frequency of social learning in our model always evolves until it reduces the mean foraging success of the population. The results of our model are consistent with empirical studies showing that individuals rely less on social information where resources vary little in quality and where there is high within-patch competition. Our model provides a framework for understanding the evolution of social learning, a prerequisite for human cumulative culture.

Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences