Learning along with others

Goldstone, R. L., Wisdom, T. N., Roberts, M. E., & Frey, S. (2013). Learning along with others. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 58, 1-45.

Unlike how most psychology experiments on learning operate, people learning to do a task typically do so in the context of other people learning to do the same task. In these situations, people take advantage of others’ solutions, and may modify and extend these solutions, thereby affecting the solutions available to others. We are interested in the group patterns that emerge when people can see and imitate the solutions, innovations, and choices of their peers over several rounds. In one series of experiments and computer simulations, we find that there is a systematic relation between the difficulty of a problem search space and the optimal social network for transmitting solutions. As the difficulty of finding optimal solutions in a search space increases, communication networks that preserve spatial neighborhoods perform best. Restricting people’s access to others’ solutions can help the group as a whole find good, hard-to-discover solutions. In other experiments with more complex search spaces, we find evidence for several heuristics governing individuals’ decisions to imitate: imitating prevalent options, imitating options that become increasingly prevalent, imitating high-scoring options, imitating during the early stages of a multiround search process, and imitating solutions similar to one’s own solution. Individuals who imitate tend to perform well, and more surprisingly, individuals also perform well when they are in groups with other individuals who imitate frequently. Taken together, our experiments on collective social learning reveal laboratory equivalents of prevalent social phenomena such as bandwagons, strategy convergence, inefficiencies in the collective coverage of a problem space, social dilemmas in exploration/exploitation, and reciprocal imitation.

Download PDF version of this paper