With everyone abuzz about human primates heading back to school this month, it seems only fitting to discuss the phenomenon we call social learning. Generally speaking, humans are social-learning junkies, and we spend billions of dollars annually to ensure that we are well educated and that our educators are educating us well, er–good.
So, why do we send children off to school so soon after they get into their big-kid pants? In addition, why do we spend much of our adult lives in some sort of classroom, i.e. taking courses, muddling through training seminars, hey, how ’bout another spring conference, anyone? Do other primates relish in their own “edu-ma-cation?”
Nonhuman primates vary in regard to their social learning abilities and time spent learning in the social setting. All primates are relatively gregarious, so it is fitting that they are capable of learning by observation of others, particularly during their juvenile days when youngsters soak in their mother’s behavior, emulating her food choices, social displays, and other habits.
Have you ever eaten at a friend’s house and thought, “whoah, this is some strange food?!?” Your friend, meanwhile, happily cleans her plate, eventually noticing your reluctance only to ask, “well, don’t you like it?” The types of food you tend to enjoy are heavily influenced by the food you are given when you are young and what you observe others around you eating on a regular basis. Young orangutans eat the same foods as their mothers, but not all youngsters eat the same foods. (Link to article here.) Even tiny infant marmosets are capable of solving feeding tasks more quickly when they are able to watch their mothers perform the task first. (Read more here.) Primates learn much of our most basic behavior from mimicking our parents.
In addition, many primates can learn from individuals outside of their immediate family groups, and the presence of multiple group members while we learn can be an advantage when it comes to learning time. Capuchins presented with new problems in the lab can solve them quicker while surrounded by other capuchins than they can when working on the tasks alone. The ability to watch others fail and learn from their mistakes, as well as to copy what works right are two key aptitudes that allow many primates to learn efficiently. When in the social setting, we also learn how to behave by being chastised by the group when we do not do what is expected. Primates continually acquire knowledge throughout their entire lives, learning by individual experience, but just as important, by making observations of and having interactions with others.
Although social learning is evident in some form in all primates, one aspect of social learning that hasn’t been studied long enough to truly understand is the art of active teaching. While it is quite obvious that individuals in most (if not all) primate groups do learn from each other, it is hard to demonstrate that nonhuman primates actually teach their youngsters in the same manner that humans do. However, some research does seem to suggest that some form of teaching does occur in nonhuman primate groups. For instance, in our aforementioned marmoset example, Momma Marmoset belabors feeding tasks when her infants are present, but breezes through them when she is alone or with older animals. This suggests her concern for making sure that the infants can perform the job properly before she moves on. It will be exciting to see more studies such as this one come about.
So, with our kiddos heading back to school with vigor, remember to think about all the little primates out in the world, right now actively participating in their own social learning experiences. Oh, and on a side note…don’t forget to thank your mom that she fed you good stuff, not like that weird food at your poor friend’s abode. What was that, anyway? Custard?