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Humans have a sophisticated ability to learn from others, termed social learning, which has allowed us to spread over the planet, construct complex societies, and travel to the moon. It has been hypothesized that social learning has played a pivotal role in making human societies cooperative, by favouring cooperation even when it is not favoured by genetical selection. However, this hypothesis lacks direct experimental testing, and the opposite prediction has also been made, that social learning disfavours cooperation. We experimentally tested how different aspects of social learning affect the level of cooperation in public-goods games. We found that: (i) social information never increased cooperation and usually led to decreased cooperation; (ii) cooperation was lowest when individuals could observe how successful individuals behaved; and (iii) cooperation declined because individuals preferred to copy successful individuals, who cooperated less, rather than copy common behaviours. Overall, these results suggest that individuals use social information to try and improve their own success, and that this can lead to lower levels of cooperation.

Original publication

DOI

10.1098/rspb.2017.0067

Type

Journal article

Journal

Proc Biol Sci

Publication Date

26/04/2017

Volume

284

Keywords

altruism, conformity, cultural evolution, prestige bias, regression to the mean