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Adaptive Social Learning: Social Learning Strategies and their Applications

Kendal, Rachel; Watson, Robin


Robin Watson
PGR Student Doctor of Philosophy


Jamshid J. Tehrani

Jeremy Kendal

Rachel Kendal


Although social learning is intuitively useful, researchers from several fields have, over the last 30 years, increasingly recognized that it is not inherently adaptive. Individuals certainly can gain fitness benefits by learning from others as they may acquire adaptive information yet avoid costs associated with the acquisition of asocial information, such as time or energy loss, opportunity costs, and predation. However, theoretical and empirical research indicates that social information use does not guarantee success. Theoretical models predict that social learning will not be employed in an indiscriminate manner and, instead, heuristics, or social learning strategies (also termed ‘transmission biases’) should bias individuals to copy particular behaviours (‘what’ strategies), performed by specific others (‘who’ strategies), under suitable circumstances (‘when’ strategies). This chapter provides a brief, non-exhaustive, review of the evidence for these social learning strategies in both humans and nonhumans. It also discusses key current debates such as the extent to which these strategies are conscious, and are products of genetic or cultural evolution, learning, or a combination of the two. Finally, it highlights the implications of social learning strategies for applied contexts and consider examples of how they have been put to practical use.


Kendal, R., & Watson, R. (in press). Adaptive Social Learning: Social Learning Strategies and their Applications. In J. J. Tehrani, J. Kendal, & R. Kendal (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Cultural Evolution. Oxford University Press.

Acceptance Date Apr 22, 2023
Online Publication Date May 22, 2023
Deposit Date Jul 8, 2024
Publisher Oxford University Press
Series Title Oxford Handbooks
Book Title The Oxford Handbook of Cultural Evolution
ISBN 9780198869252; 9780191905780
Public URL