International Journal of Primatology

, Volume 30, Issue 1, pp 143–167 | Cite as

Understanding Behavioral Traditions in Primates: Are Current Experimental Approaches Too Focused on Food?

  • Claire F. I. WatsonEmail author
  • Christine A. Caldwell


Recently, several researchers have highlighted the neglect of social behaviors relative to food-related behaviors in experimental research on social learning in primates, despite the significant number of apparent social traditions reported in the field. Here we aim to highlight the discrepancy between the relative number of nonfood-related behavioral traditions reported in the wild and food-related ones, and the almost exclusive investigation of food-related behaviors in an experimental context. First we discuss aspects of social and communicative customs that make them especially interesting. Then we consider reasons why experimental approaches are crucial to developing a full understanding of behavioral traditions observed in the wild. We report the results of a systematic literature survey in which we assessed the perceived discrepancy quantitatively. We also argue that the existing experimental literature, with its typical reliance on food as a motivator, may not be sufficient to elucidate the mechanisms underlying nonfood traditions, such as social conventions. Finally, we suggest new directions for the experimental investigation of social learning in primates, hoping to stimulate experimental research investigating social and communicative behavioral traditions.


culture primate social conventions social learning tradition 



We thank Prof. H. M. Buchanan-Smith for her support and for her comments on this manuscript. A University of Stirling Department of Psychology Ph.D. studentship provided funding for Claire F. I. Watson.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Scottish Primate Research Group, Behaviour and Evolution Research GroupUniversity of StirlingStirlingU.K.

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