Article Summary: “Why Copy Others?” by Rendell, Boyd et al

Title: Why Copy Others? Insights from the Social Learning Strategies Tournament
Author: L. Rendell, R. Boyd, D. Cownden, M. Enquist, K. Eriksson, M. W. Feldman, L. Fogarty, S. Ghirlanda, T. Lillicrap, and K. N. Laland
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 1 star
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of article

In an attempt to understand the best learning strategy for both humans and computers, the authors set up a contest where 104 teams submit computer programs that attempt to learn in an uncertain environment.

My Comments

A number of other books that have been summarized previously have theorized that copying other people’s behavior is a foundation of human culture. By effectively tapping the learning of other people rather than going through the arduous steps of experimentation, people can more quickly adapt to their environment.

This article provides empirical evidence that copying is an ideal learning strategy in a changing environment.

Other books by the same author:

Key Take-aways

  • “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” The best strategy for learning is to copy other people. While it does not lead to a perfect outcome, it is far simpler than trying every possible strategy and doing what works best.
  • It is particularly important to copy those on the leading edge of change, as they are the most likely to be adapting to recent changes in the environment.

Important Quotes from article

Social learning (learning through observation or interaction with other individuals) is widespread in nature and is central to the remarkable success of humanity, yet it remains unclear why copying is profitable and how to copy most effectively. To address these questions, we organized a computer tournament in which entrants submitted strategies specifying how to use social learning and its asocial alternative (for example, trial-and-error learning) to acquire adaptive behavior in a complex environment.  

The winning strategy (discountmachine) relied nearly exclusively on social learning and weighted information according to the time since acquisition.

Winning strategies also relied more heavily on recently acquired than older information.

The most important outcome of the tournament is the remarkable success of strategies that rely heavily on copying when learning in spite of the absence of a structural cost to asocial learning, an observation evocative of human culture. This outcome was not anticipated by the tournament organizers.

The ability to evaluate current information on the basis of its age and to judge how valuable that information might be in the future, given knowledge of rates of environmental change, is also highlighted by the tournament.

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