Personality Predicts Social Learning

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

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.”


  1. Slovenian Guest says:

    Unrelated but interesting baboon story:

    “So, I grew up on a Bushveld Farm in Africa.

    And, as one does on farms in the raw, one must maintain a system of control… over baboons.
    Experience taught the farmers how to deal with baboons, as a necessity towards having a harvest- baboons are quite destructive you see.

    The first method is by catching one using the ‘pumpkin’ trick. Quite easy:
    Tie down a pumkin, make a hole in it just big enough for a baboon hand to slip in and wait.
    The baboon will come along and stick his hand into the pumpkin, grab a handful and then try to remove his hand… but as an empty hand can go in, the clenched fist cannot get out… baboon does not want to let go… and is therefore stuck. Then you paint the fellow white, and let it go. The returning baboon will scare the living daylights out of his tribe and they will disappear for a while.

    The other method… well… shoot a couple and the farm will be avoided for a LONG time.

    It is not as easy as one would think to hunt baboons, firstly, as they have very effective watch..err.. watchmen (Bobejaan-brandwag) who will sound the alarm as soon as they spot people with guns. The trick is as follows (works for Maize fields):

    If one man walks into the field, and hides, the baboons stay away.
    If two goes in, and one comes out, they stay away.
    If three goes in and two comes out… they stay away…
    But if four goes in and three comes out… they seem to think that many went in and many left… all right to plunder.

    We used to tease and say “1-2-many” is how baboons count. So, imagine my puzzlement when I saw that there are… well… humans living by a similar system!

    Here we are wielding the Power of the Universe (maths) as if it is nothing… and others are still learning how to count!”

    Anonymous comment under the Amazonian Tribe Has No Word To Express Numbers Slashdot story, which is itself worth checking:

    “Instead they seem to use the word formerly thought to mean “two” to represent a quantity of 5 or 6, and the “one” word for anything from 1 to 4. The language has about 300 native speakers. “The study… offers evidence that number words are a concept invented by human cultures as they are needed, and not an inherent part of language”

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