Adaptive Social Learning Strategies in Temporally and Spatially Varying Environments: How Temporal vs. Spatial Variation, Number of Cultural Traits, and Costs of Learning Influence the Evolution of Conformist-Biased Transmission, Payoff-Biased Transmission, and Individual Learning

Wataru Nakahashi, Joe Yuichiro Wakano, Joseph Henrich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

49 Citations (Scopus)


Long before the origins of agriculture human ancestors had expanded across the globe into an immense variety of environments, from Australian deserts to Siberian tundra. Survival in these environments did not principally depend on genetic adaptations, but instead on evolved learning strategies that permitted the assembly of locally adaptive behavioral repertoires. To develop hypotheses about these learning strategies, we have modeled the evolution of learning strategies to assess what conditions and constraints favor which kinds of strategies. To build on prior work, we focus on clarifying how spatial variability, temporal variability, and the number of cultural traits influence the evolution of four types of strategies: (1) individual learning, (2) unbiased social learning, (3) payoff-biased social learning, and (4) conformist transmission. Using a combination of analytic and simulation methods, we show that spatial-but not temporal-variation strongly favors the emergence of conformist transmission. This effect intensifies when migration rates are relatively high and individual learning is costly. We also show that increasing the number of cultural traits above two favors the evolution of conformist transmission, which suggests that the assumption of only two traits in many models has been conservative. We close by discussing how (1) spatial variability represents only one way of introducing the low-level, nonadaptive phenotypic trait variation that so favors conformist transmission, the other obvious way being learning errors, and (2) our findings apply to the evolution of conformist transmission in social interactions. Throughout we emphasize how our models generate empirical predictions suitable for laboratory testing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)386-418
Number of pages33
JournalHuman Nature
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2012 Dec 1



  • Conformist transmission
  • Individual learning
  • Learning strategies
  • Payoff-biased transmission
  • Social learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science

Cite this