Learning from a “Neigh”bor

They say that the best way to learn how to do something is to do it yourself. I don’t know about you, but I much prefer the somewhat lazier option of learning how to do something by watching others do it. This method, known as social learning, involves more complex cognitive processes (figuring out what the other individual is doing, and understanding that you can use the same method to achieve the same result) than individual learning. But it also has some advantages, chiefly the ability to learn without directly experiencing any of the accompanying dangers or consequences.

It’s no surprise, then, that many animals are able to utilize social learning. I’d love to discuss the wide range of animals that use social learning in a future post, but today I’m going to focus on a single study done on social learning in horses. This study is particularly interesting because it also investigates some factors that influence whether a horse learns socially or not.

303px-Arizona_2004_MustangsKrueger et al. (2013) investigated whether horses could learn to access hidden food just by watching other horses. First, they trained some horses to open a food-filled drawer by pulling on a rope; these horses then became demonstrators for the rest of the horses (the “observers”).

In each trial, an observer horse watched a demonstrator open the drawer and eat the food. Then the demonstrator was led away, the drawer was refilled with food and closed, and the observer was allowed to approach the drawer. Once the observer consistently opened the drawer after the demonstrator, she was tested without the demonstrator.

A third group of horses participated in a control experiment, where they were given access to the closed drawer without training or demonstrations. The success rate of these control horses was compared to that of the observers to determine whether seeing the demonstrators open the drawer led to a higher success rate (i.e. social learning occurred).

4598811547_1d257e2c9e_m12 of the 25 observer horses learned to open the drawer, whereas only 2 of the 14 control horses did, showing that horses can use social learning to find hidden food. But perhaps the most interesting result comes from comparing the 12 observers who learned to the 13 who didn’t. Krueger et al. found that the “learner” horses were younger, ranked lower in the group’s social hierarchy, and more exploratory than the “non-learner” horses. (The researchers measured how exploratory the horses were by seeing how much they touched novel objects that were presented to them.)

Krueger et al. took a closer look at the relationships between age, social rank, amount of exploration, and social learning. They found that the younger the horse, the faster it learned. No such relationship was found with social rank and amount of exploration. This, along with other analyses, suggests that age has the biggest influence on whether a horse socially learns or not.

The researchers hypothesize that older horses could be less able to socially learn simply due to their age. Additionally, although social learning is most often beneficial to the learner, it can also result in learning behavior that is disadvantageous. Older horses could be less willing to learn socially in order to minimize this risk. This could be enhanced by the fact that the demonstrators in this experiment were younger than the older, non-learning horses. Older horses could generally not learn behavior from younger horses because, due to their lack of experience, younger horses may engage in more dangerous or risky behaviors.

468273357_0ac370df68_nThis experiment showed that horses are able to learn socially, although more research needs to be done on the factors influencing social learning on an individual level. Besides those discussed here, what factors do you think would affect whether an animal can (or chooses to) socially learn?

Next week we’ll look at social learning in a very different group of animals (think water…)!

Source Cited:

Krueger, Konstanze, Kate Farmer, and Jürgen Heinze. “The effects of age, rank and neophobia on social learning in horses.” Animal cognition (2013): 1-11.


7 thoughts on “Learning from a “Neigh”bor

  1. As usual, a very interesting and definitely a learning article.  I always hesitate to answer, for I am not sure what to answer.  On this blog, I kept relating what you were telling to we “old folks” to young ones.  “Older horses could generally not learn behavior from younger horses because, due to their lack of experience, younger horses may engage in more dangerous or risky behaviors.” …..or is it because of ‘lack of experience’ or is ‘age’ problems of memory, lack of strength, eye sight, etc. part of the reason?  Something that probably is hard to learn with animals.

    Really look forward to all your blogs.  Keep up, what I think, is interesting and a learning process for me – although, being an older adult, I am not always able to remember and have to go back and reread.

    Love you.


  2. Thanks! I’m so glad you’re enjoying it!

    I think the researchers aren’t exactly sure why the “learners” were younger and the “non-learners” were older, so they suggest a few different theories. Previous research indicates that younger animals are better at learning than older ones, probably for the reasons you mentioned (like memory issues). So it could just be that older animals aren’t able to learn socially.

    On the other hand, maybe it’s that the older animals are being smart by not learning socially from younger animals — the older animals might know that the younger ones will more likely do stupid or risky things because of their lack of experience. Maybe older animals take into account the age or experience level of the animal they’re observing, and then determine whether to learn that behavior or not.

    Like you said, though, we can’t tell from this experiment exactly why the younger horses learned socially while the older ones didn’t — there’s much more research to be done!

  3. Beavers? Haha, I’m been watching too much Animal Planet lately. (But seriously, how do beavers know how to build strong dams?)

    Where would animals that communicate about routes and stuff (ants, bees, etc) fall into social learning? Or is that entirely different?

  4. Great questions!

    Re: social learning and route communication, I think the definition I gave for social learning was perhaps a bit broad. Social learning refers to skills or behaviors that can be used in similar situations in the future, rather than to specific bits of information. Based on this definition, I think route communication, like honey bees’ waggle dance, is considered communication, not learning. Additionally, the skill of route communication was developed through evolution, not passed on from individual to individual. So route communication in insects is more an example of instinct rather than social learning (although it says nothing about whether those insects are capable of social learning).

    As for beavers, we don’t definitively know how they know how to build strong dams. Research indicates that they do so instinctively (they don’t have to learn to build dams). The first answer on this page explains a couple interesting theories about how dam-building may have evolved:

    Finally, there’s no such thing as watching too much Animal Planet 🙂

    • Oh, cool. Can you give examples/expand more on “instinct” or “behaviour ‘controlled’ by genes”; particularly what has been observed in other animals/species and humans, if applicable?

      • In the case of non-human animals, behaviors are considered instinctive or controlled by genes when they’re observed across the entire species, regardless of environment. Researchers have observed some behaviors that are specific to a particular group of animals, but not the species as a whole. This has been most commonly seen in primates, with potato-washing macaques as a famous example. In this case, the behavior is not considered instinct but rather learned. (Some researchers also say it’s proof that animals can have cultures. I’m hoping to write a blog post about that in the future!)

        I think it’s a lot tougher to talk about instincts in relation to humans — we don’t seem to rely on them (or be controlled by them) as much as other animals. In what I could find online, much of the emphasis was on “primitive reflexes”, or the reflexes we have as babies, which are considered instinctive. These reflexes include the suckling reflex and the plantar reflex (you might have heard of this one: running a finger down the sole of the foot causes the toes to flex up in babies but down in adults). Some of these reflexes evolved because they were beneficial to babies’ survival, and others (like the plantar reflex) are due to an undeveloped nervous system. Doctors actually test these reflexes in adults (who should no longer have them) to determine if there’s damage to the nervous system. (If you’re interested in learning more about these — they’re oddly fascinating! — check out the “Primitive Reflexes” Wikipedia page. It’s a good summary with a bunch of links to the original research.)

        I hope this answered your question!

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