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Social Learning: An Introduction to Mechanisms, Methods, and Models

Hoppitt, William and Laland, Kevin N.
Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 2013
ISBN 9781400846504 (pb)

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Reviewed by Francesc S. Beltran
Institut de Recerca en Cervell, Cognició i Conducta (IR3C). Grup de Conducta Adaptativa i Interacció, Universitat de Barcelona

Cover of book Social learning has long been a key topic in both the social and biological sciences, in fields such as comparative and developmental psychology, ethology and primatology. However, the recent development of new research tools, mainly statistics and mathematics, has generated increased interest among researchers in the field. A monograph updating the content and methods in this broad, up-and-coming field is therefore highly necessary.

In the Introduction, Hoppitt and Laland begin by pointing out the wide variety of definitions of social learning. The authors have chosen a generic one: "Social learning is learning that is facilitated by observation of, or interaction with, another individual (or its products)" (p. 4). They also clearly define related concepts such as social facilitation, innovation, tradition and culture. The second chapter contains a brief history of social learning that chronicles the different changes in topics, concepts and methods. The third chapter focuses on laboratory methods in social learning, including traditional approaches and new methods mainly from the neurosciences. The fourth one helps the reader identify and distinguish social learning mechanisms. The next chapters look at a range of statistical and mathematical methods applied to a variety of topics in the field. The book concludes by showing modeling approaches applied to culture. The book is thus structured around the methods, especially the new statistical, mathematical and modeling tools applied to the main topics in social learning.

As the authors say, "The book is designed to be a complete and accessible practical guide for the social learning teacher and their students, as well as for others whose interest in social learning is less central" (p. 3). Although the authors’ main objective may have been to write a textbook, the result is much more than this as the topics covered and the exhaustive introduction to the methods makes it an essential reference for anyone, including researchers in fields ranging from biology to the behavioral and social sciences. Furthermore, the emphasis on the evolutionary basis of social learning allows the authors to take a new look at many phenomena and topics previously covered whose evolutionary basis is frequently forgotten.

To conclude, JASSS readers will find food for thought in this book especially in the ninth chapter, Modeling Social Learning and Culture, which begins by operationalizing culture and establishing parallels between biological and cultural evolution. A complete theoretical approach to social learning and culture is then introduced and the modeling methods are described. I highly recommended this chapter to researchers interested in the topics covered in the JASSS, and I also encourage them to take a look at the whole textbook.


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