Conquering by Copying

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Science  09 Apr 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5975, pp. 165-167
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5975.165

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The ability to learn from others is central to the evolution and persistence of culture, and it is viewed as part of the reason humans have come to dominate the planet. But linking social learning to our success as a species in a formal mathematical sense has proven quite tricky. Equally important, it hasn't been clear how people best learn socially. Sometimes individuals copy the behaviors of others seemingly at random; other times they appear to decide who to copy based on the level of prestige of the individual. To address that question, a research consortium hosted a tournament, with a €10,000 prize, in which all comers would pit computer programs incorporating social-learning strategies against each other. The analysis of the competition is reported on page 208 of this week's issue of Science. A simple approach, from a surprising entry, won hands down. Most researchers had thought that a mix of learning on one's own and social learning would be the best strategy. Yet a pair of graduate students won the contest with a strategy heavily tilted toward imitation rather than innovation (see sidebar).