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An interdisciplinary team of UvA scientists received an ABC project grant from the Amsterdam Brain and Cognition centre to study the causes and consequences of social learning. One of the researchers involved is Martijn Egas, assistant professor Evolutionary Population Biology at the UvA Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED).

Social learning is a fundamental trait central to human cognition and culture. Adjustment of behaviour through observing others drives the rapid diffusion of skills, behaviours and social norms. Moreover, it directly impacts key social and economic outcomes such as voting, consumption behaviours and health decisions. Recent studies revealed substantial individual and cultural differences in social learning strategies, but the individual-level causes and group-level consequences of this variation are unknown.

This project brings together ABC’s interdisciplinary expertise in neuroscience, economics and biology to examine how environments shape people’s social learning. By connecting environmental variables with changes on neural level, and linking individual behaviour back to group dynamics, the findings will contribute to a deeper understanding of this key aspect of human cognition.

Population dynamics

Through the participation of Martijn Egas in this project, IBED contributes expertise in in population dynamics and behavioural experiments. ‘We will extend existing models by incorporating individual variation in social learning strategies, and test the intuition that a group’s success or failure will depend on its composition: adaptive behaviour will spread faster in groups comprising social learners, but will be more likely to be discovered in groups comprising individual learners’ Martijn Egas explains. ‘I am excited to also examine experimentally how a group’s adaptive capacity depends on the learning strategies of its members, and how the relative performance of individual and social learners is shaped by their social environment.’

Besides Martijn Egas, the interdisciplinary research team further includes dr. Wouter van den Bos (Development Psychology) and prof. Matthijs van Veelen (Microeconomics). The project grant covers the financial resources to appoint a postdoc for 2 years.