Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Vervet Monkeys Teach Us About Social Learning

Recent research on monkeys that have the capacity to socially learn from each other is an interesting concept in behavioral emulation that helps to define how societies operate. Like humans, it would appear that these monkeys learn to adapt to social cues in order to both learn and socially connect with their tribal members. 

The study published in the journal Science helps show how monkeys taught to eat particular colors of corn changed their preferences when socializing with monkeys taught to prefer a different color. A Vervet Monkey that moved from one group to another watched the other monkeys to determine what food choices they should make. 

Erica van de Waal, a research leader from the University of Saint Andrews, indicated that baby monkeys only ate what their mothers ate and ignored other colors. Dominant males almost never tried other non-preferred colors and when entering groups with no dominant males continued to eat their learned color. Only less dominant monkeys tried different colors when the preferred color was not available.

It would seem that such behavior would have an advantage for group cohesion and protection. As monkeys copy each other they develop certain rules that allow them to live with and exist with each other. All social creatures have and maintain these rules in order to define their place in the hierarchical order as well as give a methodology to survival (i.e. colored corn as being preferred).

It is also be possible that such behavior encourages survival through the emulation of alpha males. As the alpha males rise to the top of the tribe by being the most athletically dominant, other monkeys begin to copy such behavior. In the animal kingdom this is an easy order that can be defined through conflict and challenges. With humans it takes complex paths that are difficult to grasp as adults are dissuaded from physical conflicts-It becomes an intellectual game.

It can also help to highlight the concept that leaders give preferences that others begin to copy and follow. They reinforce these preferences on each other over time through social adherence. Those who enter a tribe must learn the rules in order to have the social benefits and natural protections that are provided from a particular society. To not follow the dominant members or those that copy them and eat their own preferred color may result in a lessening of status and potential fewer mate selection opportunities.

The research helps support the concept that all societies have structure and rules. These rules don't always make sense as some colors (i.e. products) that were taught to be discouraged were actually healthy in the monkey study. Yet the tribal members continued to prefer specific colors indifferent to quality or benefit. A monkey that picked up the discouraged colors might be the smartest member as it would not need to compete for food but would certainly suffer the social consequences of doing so-that is until the environment changed.

It would be nice to see this study conducted again by changing some variables such as limiting the amount of food available or hiding preferred colors to make them more difficult to find. Would the monkeys fight over the preferred colors when they were found? Would they change and adapt their preferences or does scarcity raise its value? Which factor is stronger---social structure or preferred color gratification?

Which color do you prefer? Oh! We don't do that!

 Researchers: Dr Erica van de Waal of University of St. Andrews, Andrew Whiten of University of St. Andrews, Christele Borgeaud of University of Neuchatel. 

 Further Reading:

The New York Times

Science Daily

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