Posts Tagged ‘Social Learning’

Laura Desirée Di Paolo: Review of Heyes, C. “What’s Social About Social Learning?”

In Di Paolo, Philosophy of Cognitive Sciences, Review on March 28, 2013 at 9:00 AM

As always, Cecilia Heyes asks the right question: What’s social about social learning? Nothing, she answers, except for social inputs. There are two points: (1) social and asocial learning use same mechanisms; (2) social inputs make sociality unique. The first point is appealing, the second one looks tautological, but it is not. Let us see why. Three points: (1) the exhibited list include only three animal-learning typologies (stimulus enhancement, observational conditioning and observational learning), not considering the generally accepted distinction between emulation/imitation (e.g. Byrne & Russon, 1998) and this cannot be a slip; (2) uniqueness of social learning is trivially explained by inputs; (3) all the article looks like the pars destruens of a more completed reasoning. As a matter of fact, there is one theory, widely valued, which underlines qualitative differences among social learning strategies, saying that just one strategy produces “TRUE CULTURE” (e.g. Tomasello, 1999; 2008; 2009). Heyes’ pointing on identity of mechanisms could mean that these differences (emulation, imitation, true imitation, over-imitation) are not momentous. Therefore, we can suppose that (a) environmental factors, which in primates are social factors, affect abilities of social transmission considerably; (b) explaining sociality’ uniqueness does not require evolutionary adaptations, but simpler things as differences in inputs; (c) ontogenetic inheritance is otherwise significant. If this was the theoretical, tacit framework of this article, I could have not agreed more.



Byrne, R.W. & Russon, A.E. (1998) Learning by imitation: A hierarchical approach. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 21: 667-721. http://web.media.mit.edu/~cynthiab/Readings/Byrne-Russon98.pdf

Heyes, C. (2011) What’s Social About Social Learning? Journal of Comparative Psychology, (online first). http://www.all-souls.ox.ac.uk/users/heyesc/Celia’s%20pdfs/94%202011%20Heyes%20What’s%20social.pdf

Tomasello, M. (1999) The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Harvard University Press

Tomasello, M. (2008) Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, Ma-  London, En: MIT Press

Tomasello, M. (2009) Why We Cooperate? Cambridge, Ma-  London, En: MIT Press


Stiffness and plasticity in social learning strategies. An idea of interpretation.

In Anthropology, Di Paolo, Philosophy of Cognitive Sciences on March 19, 2013 at 6:11 PM

Several useful behaviours that an individual must apprehend for growing up require the presence of “friendly” co-specifics in a social context. In primates, various strategies of Social Learning are present, mostly relying on an individual’s ability to solve problems by trial-and-error, but some of apes are able to show imitative learning, considered pivotal for cumulative culture. Chimpanzees have been recognized, even if not by all the scholars, able to switch between an individual, plastic but less accurate method of learning (both a trial-and-error strategy properly and emulative learning), and true imitation, depending on the quantity of relevant information at disposal in a causality task (Whiten et al, 2005; 2009). Rather, human children are incredibly stiff in copying adults, doing it not only when it is useful, but also when it is wasteful, disadvantageous and harmful. Later in their development they become able to choose more plastic and individual strategies. Some authors (Tomasello in primis, e.g. Tomasello, 2005; 2009) have pointed to this fully developed imitative behaviour as the main cause of human uniqueness, but this idea seems quite strange considering the vast amount of data we have at disposal on non-human culture and the use of imitation by some enculturated apes (e.g. McGrew, 2004; Byrne, 2007; Whiten, 2011; Tomasello & Call,2004; Call, 2011); . How is it possible, indeed, that these latter (even if, as usually recognized, not all captive apes) are able to imitate, if imitation appeared suddenly in humans, as a human adaptation, founding our “overbearing” life-style? Data on human-raised/enculturated chimpanzees demonstrate that imitation is something that can be exhibited by other species as well, meaning that it is something already present in the repertoire of these other species (Call & Tomasello, 1996; Bering, 2004; Tomasello & Call, 2004; Call, 2011). Consequently we are allowed to think that somehow imitation developed at least before the separation between hominid lineages and chimpanzee/bonobo ancestors. Imitative behaviour is usually displayed by enculturated/human raised apes  and that because in the cultural context it seems more useful, or only more probable. However then, another interesting question comes up and it concerns the use of imitation by human children, that they do pedantically at least till they start to speak fluently. Probably, an economical explanation could be that humans only re-use same learning strategies inherited from their ancestors, shared with their evolutionary relatives, but they do it differently. Together with social explanations, the preponderance of imitative learning in humans is probably due to the open environment in which hominins evolved: in this environment, in fact, reaching food was more difficult than in forests. Because of this difficulty, probably copying faithfully successful actions was better than trying to reach the same goal with an individual strategy. And they did so again and again. Therefore, the rigid use of imitation by human children may be derived exactly from that: humans become very good to firstly learn necessary information by means of imitation, and only later and over this ground, each individual can add something personal, using a trial-and-error process. Cumulative culture, so, could not depend on a specific learning strategy, but more on differences in using already existing strategies, spreading them over different developmental steps.

Laura Desirée Di Paolo

Call, J. (2011) How Artificial Communication Affects the Communication and Cognition of the Great Apes. Mind and Language, 26, 1: 1-20.

Call, J. & Tomasello, M. (1996) The effect of humans on the cognitive development of apes. In A.E. Russon, K.A. Bard & S.T. Parker (Eds). Reaching into thought (pp. 371-403); Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bering, J. (2004) A critical review of the “enculturation hypothesis”: the effects of human rearing on great ape social cognition; Animal Cognition, 7, 4: 201-212.

Byrne, R W. (2007) Culture in great apes: Using intricate complexity in feeding skills to trace the evolutionary origin of human technical prowess. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B,. 362: 577-585

McGrew,W.C. (2004) The Cultured Chimpanzee: Reflections on Cultural Primatology. Cambridge University Press, 248 pp.

Tomasello, M. & Call, J. (1997) Primate Cognition. New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press.

                                           (2004) The role of humans in the cognitive development of apes revisited. Animal Cognition, 7:213-215.

Tomasello, M., Savage-Rumbaugh, S., Kruger, A.C. (1993) Imitative learning of actions on objects by children, chimpanzees, and encultured chimpanzees. Child Development, 64: 1688-1705.

Whiten, A. (2005). Chimpanzee cultures. In J. Caldecott. & L. Miles (Eds) The World Atlas of Great Apes and their Conservation (United Nations Environment Programme). Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

                         (2005). The second inheritance system of chimpanzees and humans. Nature, 437, 52-55.

Why more than one Theory of Mind? ToM as relational process.

In Di Paolo, Philosophy of Cognitive Sciences, Philosophy of Mind on November 28, 2012 at 6:20 PM

Defining theory of mind (ToM) is not an easy task (Hutto et al., 2011). In their attempt to analyze this concept, Butterfill &Apperly (2011) have constructed minimal ToM, a cognitive ability in which a subject can understand that another individual has a mental-state without attributing him/her this mental-state. Minimal ToM is a cognition (not just an ability), but cannot be identified with full-blown ToM, a proper propositional attribution to, and comprehension of what is going on in another individual’s “mind”. Minimal and full, considered not as two developmental succeeding stages, become alternative routes, exploited either by infants and some animals (minimal), or by adults (full).  Question is: why two? The same “route”, actually, might be used differently, depending on age and contexts. The difficulty crops up considering ToM as a final “something”, entirely acquired at a certain age: that allows to think imperfect stages or disparate routes. My opinion is to look at ToM otherwise, as a relational process, dependent on learning context, physical environment and social/cultural transmission of information. Minimal ToM becomes an essential cognitive “toolbox”, inherited phylogenetically. Differences between infants and adults appear because individuals, tracking their environment and learning from this, partially overwrite the “toolbox” with new, sensitive capacities. 


  Apperly, I.A. (2012) What is “theory of mind”? Concepts, cognitive processes and individual differences. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65, 5: 825-839.

 Butterfill S.A. & Apperly I.A. (2011) How to construct a minimal theory of mind. Mind and Language.

Hutto, D.D., Herschback, M., Southgate, V. (2011) Editorial: Social Cognition: Mindreading and Alternatives. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 2: 375-395. 


Laura Desirée Di Paolo 

Shaping language faculty.

In Anthropology, Di Vincenzo, Philosophy of Cognitive Sciences on November 26, 2012 at 10:04 PM

Fabio di Vincenzo

Language and social learning appear to be closely related biological phenomena. The cortical areas of the left hemisphere that lies around the fissure of Sylvius are related to the phenomenon of social learning both in man and apes. This cortical areas are the same devoted to the faculty of language in modern humans. Furthermore social learning exhibit a functional coupling of both semantic and syntactic aspects that pre-date the origin of language itself. The extensive and fast-growing of the left perisylvian cortical areas since early Homo more than 2 milions years ago, can be properly linked to the individual advantage to possess a much more efficient and accurate non-verbal system for an early learning by imitation of the know-how and technical skills to have access to food resources, including nutrients essential to support the development of the brain not otherwise available. From a Darwinian point of view, the increased capabilities of social learning in Plio-Pleistocene hominins provides the key adaptations for the further evolution of language.



Di Vincenzo,F. (2011). Toward a neuro-archaeology of the faculty of language. Atti del IV convegno 2010 del CODISCO, 255-266

Di Vincenzo, F.& Manzi, G. (2012). MicroMega. Almanacco della Scienza 1, 2012, 147-167