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.
Krueger 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).
12 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.
This 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…)!
Krueger, Konstanze, Kate Farmer, and Jürgen Heinze. “The effects of age, rank and neophobia on social learning in horses.” Animal cognition (2013): 1-11.