Researchers conducted a three-year study of how personality interacts with social learning — in wild baboons in Namibia:
Carter and her colleagues had given all the baboons “personality tests” to measure two traits, boldness and anxiety. They assessed boldness by looking at a baboon’s response to a new food (such as a hard-boiled egg dyed green); the bolder the individual, the more time he or she spends inspecting a new food. They assessed anxiety by presenting the baboons with a taxidermied venomous snake; in this test, more anxious individuals spend more time investigating the potential threat. Boldness and anxiety are stable personality traits and are independent in baboons, meaning a bolder baboon is just as likely to be anxious as a shy baboon.
After figuring out where individual baboons fell on these two personality traits, the researchers looked at whether the traits were related to the time spent watching a demonstrator or the subsequent ability to then solve the task being demonstrated.
They found bolder and more anxious individuals were more likely to learn about a novel foraging task from another baboon — despite the fact that shy baboons watched the demonstrators just as much as bold baboons, and calm baboons paid even more attention to the demonstrators than anxious baboons. This means that an individual’s ability or interest in watching a demonstrator does not necessarily translate to then solving the task. All personality types seemed to collect social information, but bolder and more anxious baboons were better at using it.
Carter thinks that bold baboons may show more social learning not because they are smarter or better at learning this type of information, but because they are more willing to interact with something new. “I imagine that watching another individual manipulate a novel food requires less boldness than manipulating a novel food directly,” she says. “It’s likely the shy baboons were just too shy to handle the food, even after watching a demonstrator.”