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Social transmission of information is a key phenomenon in the evolution of behaviour and in the establishment of traditions and culture. The diversity of social learning phenomena has engendered a diverse terminology and numerous ideas about underlying learning mechanisms, at the same time that some researchers have called for a unitary analysis of social learning in terms of associative processes. Leveraging previous attempts and a recent computational formulation of associative learning, we analyse the following learning scenarios in some generality: learning responses to social stimuli, including learning to imitate; learning responses to non-social stimuli; learning sequences of actions; learning to avoid danger. We conceptualize social learning as situations in which stimuli that arise from other individuals have an important role in learning. This role is supported by genetic predispositions that either cause responses to social stimuli or enable social stimuli to reinforce specific responses. Simulations were performed using a new learning simulator program. The simulator is publicly available and can be used for further theoretical investigations and to guide empirical research of learning and behaviour. Our explorations show that, when guided by genetic predispositions, associative processes can give rise to a wide variety of social learning phenomena, such as stimulus and local enhancement, contextual imitation and simple production imitation, observational conditioning, and social and response facilitation. In addition, we clarify how associative mechanisms can result in transfer of information and behaviour from experienced to naive individuals.


This article was originally published in the Royal Society of Open Science, available at DOI: 10.1098/rsos.181777.

This work was distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY 4.0)

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