"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Margaret Mead
Research Article

Resource distributions affect social learning on multiple timescales


We study how learning is shaped by foraging opportunities and self-organizing processes and how this impacts on the effects of “copying what neighbors eat” on multiple timescales. We use an individual-based model with a rich environment, where group foragers learn what to eat. We vary foraging opportunities by changing local variation in resources, studying copying in environments with pure patches, varied patches, and uniform distributed resources. We find that copying can help individuals explore the environment by sharing information, but this depends on how foraging opportunities shape the learning process. Copying has the greatest impact in varied patches, where local resource variation makes learning difficult, but local resource abundance makes copying easy. In contrast, copying is redundant or excessive in pure patches where learning is easy, and mostly ineffective in uniform environments where learning is difficult. Our results reveal that the mediation of copying behavior by individual experience is crucial for the impact of copying. Moreover, we find that the dynamics of social learning at short timescales shapes cultural phenomena. In fact, the integration of learning on short and long timescales generates cumulative cultural improvement in diet. Our results therefore provide insight into how and when such processes can arise. These insights need to be taken into account when considering behavioral patterns in nature.