Like other social animals, baboons learn from each other about which foods are best to eat. Now, researchers at Cambridge have found that how well they learn from others depends on their personality, bold or anxious baboons learning more than those who are shy or laid back.

Our findings suggest that animals may perform poorly in cognitive tasks not because they aren’t clever enough to solve them, but because they are too shy or nervous to interact.

Dr Alecia Carter

Working with a well-studied group of baboons in the Namibian desert, Dr Alecia Carter of the Department of Zoology set baboons learning tasks involving a novel food and a familiar food hidden in a cardboard box. Some baboons were given the chance to watch another baboon who already knew how to solve the task, while others had to learn for themselves.

To work out how bold or anxious the baboons were, she presented them either with a novel food or a threat in the form of a model of a puff adder.

She found that personality had a major impact on learning. “The bolder baboons learnt, but although the shy ones watched the baboon with the novel tasks just as long as the bold ones did, they did not learn the task. In effect, despite being made aware of what to do, they were still too shy to act on that information,” said Dr Carter.

The same held true for anxious versus calm baboons: the anxious individuals learnt the task by observing others while those who were laid back did not, even though they spent more time watching.

This mismatch between collecting social information and using it shows that personality plays a key role in social learning in animals, something that has previously been ignored in animal cognition studies.

“Our findings are significant because they suggest that animals may perform poorly in cognitive tasks not because they aren’t clever enough to solve them, but because they are too shy or nervous to interact with it. Individual differences in social learning that are related to personality may thus have to be taken into account systematically when studying animal cognition,” she said.

The results also suggest that the baboons’ social networks may prevent them from learning from others. “I couldn’t test some individuals no matter how hard I tried, because although they were given the opportunity to watch a knowledgeable individual who knew how to solve the task, some baboons simply never went near a knowledgeable individual and thus never had the opportunity to learn from others,” she explained.

The findings may impact how we understand the formation of culture in societies through social learning. If some individuals are unable to get information from others because they don’t associate with the knowledgeable individuals, or they are too shy to use the information once they have it, information may not travel between all group members, preventing the formation of a culture based on social learning.

The study, published in PeerJ, is the result of Dr Carter’s research for her PhD at the Australian National University. Now at the University of Cambridge, Dr Carter will continue to work with the Tsaobis Baboon Project, a long-term project run by the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology.

She will return to Namibia in April and June to set up a new study examining whether the baboons’ social network really affects from whom they get social information.

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