Animal Cognition

, Volume 18, Issue 5, pp 1093–1103 | Cite as

The learning of action sequences through social transmission

  • Andrew Whalen
  • Daniel CowndenEmail author
  • Kevin Laland
Original Paper


Previous empirical work on animal social learning has found that many species lack the ability to learn entire action sequences solely through reliance on social information. Conversely, acquiring action sequences through asocial learning can be difficult due to the large number of potential sequences arising from even a small number of base actions. In spite of this, several studies report that some primates use action sequences in the wild. We investigate how social information can be integrated with asocial learning to facilitate the learning of action sequences. We formalize this problem by examining how learners using temporal difference learning, a widely applicable model of reinforcement learning, can combine social cues with their own experiences to acquire action sequences. The learning problem is modeled as a Markov decision process. The learning of nettle processing by mountain gorillas serves as a focal example. Through simulations, we find that the social facilitation of component actions can combine with individual learning to facilitate the acquisition of action sequences. Our analysis illustrates that how even simple forms of social learning, combined with asocial learning, generate substantially faster learning of action sequences compared to asocial processes alone, and that the benefits of social information increase with the length of the action sequence and the number of base actions.


Social learning Sequence learning Temporal difference learning Markov decision process Chaining 



The authors thank Richard Byrne for his very helpful comments. DC thanks Magnus Enquist and Johan Lind for countless inspiring conversations and in particular for pointing out the importance of sequence learning, and the potential of Markov decision processes for modeling such learning problems. This research was supported by a grant from The John Templeton Foundation.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Ethical standard

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of BiologyUniversity of St AndrewsSt Andrews, FifeUK

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