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Ciara Cunningham

Aurion Learning

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The difference between chimpanzees and us: Social Learning?


The difference between chimpanzees and us: Social Learning?

Our ability to learn from one another and build upon each other’s wisdom (known as social learning) means that we can find new, quicker and more effective ways of doing everyday tasks. In this blog, we’ll explore why social learning is one of the things that makes us unique as humans and discuss why it is so exciting.

We recently watched biologist, Mark Pagel’s TED talk, How language transformed humanity and were blown away by the things he had to say. There are few better ways as a learning and development enthusiast that you could spend your next 20 minutes, so watch the talk here now.

It's difficult to sum it up more succinctly, so we'll have to quote Pagel:

“Each of you possesses the most powerful, dangerous and subversive trait that natural selection has ever devised. It's a piece of neural audio technology for rewiring other people's minds. I'm talking about your language, of course, because it allows you to implant a thought from your mind directly into someone else's mind, and they can attempt to do the same to you, without either of you having to perform surgery.”

Our capacity to communicate ideas, thoughts and feelings through language means that we can connect with others and work together to achieve mutually beneficial goals. In his talk, Pagel explains how chimpanzees can use simple tools to feed themselves but lack the ability to learn from each other and to innovate. This prevents them from building the social and physical structures (such as supermarkets, for example) which would allow them to feed themselves more easily and efficiently. Our ability to innovate and grow through social learning is a remarkable gift which allows us to achieve things which our monkey counterparts could simply never realise.

Social learning allows us not only to pick up good habits and useful knowledge from others but it also allows us to form close-knit groups of people who we can bounce ideas off and pursue innovation with.

We often talk about learning as if it were an individual pursuit to be undergone at a lonely study desk or whilst sitting by ourselves in front of a computer screen. Academics Lave and Wenger speak about learning in a different way. They talk about communities of practice which are “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

According to Wenger, there are three distinguishing features of a community of practice:

1. A shared domain

Members share a discipline or sphere of interest.

2. An active community

Members interact, assist one another and impart information to one another.

3. A shared practice

Members form a way of functioning. Through past experiences, they decide how to deal with future challenges.

Without realising it, many of us already belong to communities of practice; in our work units, sports teams and even our social circles. Social learning can often feel a lot more natural and appealing than formalised, traditional learning so it’s helpful as E-Learning practitioners to find ways to incorporate it into our teaching. Fortunately, there are limitless possibilities to introduce social learning online, including forums, group assignments and blended learning approaches.

The inclusion of social learning in E-Learning is exciting because if we are able to form communities of practice free from geographical boundaries and limitations, we can equip people to learn at any time of day, gaining knowledge from any number of sources so that they can use it immediately within our organisations. Social learning is interactive, attention-grabbing, inexpensive and potential filled.

Please let us know your comments or share with others who you think may benefit from this. Visit or follow us on twitter @aurionlearning for our latest blog articles and updates.

3 Responses

  1. Not quite the whole picture

    Thanks for the blog which is interesting.  Thanks also for the link to the TED talk which I had missed.

    Your assertion that Chimps can't learn socially because of their lack of language is incorrect, however.  There are many examples of Chimpanzees learning via social methods and other primates – such as Macaques do as well.  From using tools to hunting in groups, they observe, imitate and build skills by exploiting the approaches which seem to work best when employed by others in their group.

    In fact, it could be argued that chimps are more capable social learners than humans as they are not influenced by discussion and conversation, purely focusing on the behaviours which deliver results.  Without language it may be more inefficient, but this is because of the lack of a teacher role or what Vygotsky described as a 'more knowledgeable other' who can demonstrate, explain and provide feedback.

    When psychologist Albert Bandura coined the term social learning he was looking not at what was said, but at imitation between children.  His observations of a group of 3 and 4 year olds showed how easily influenced these children where by the behaviours demonstrated by those whom they looked up to – usually adults or older more dominant children.  Language was not a significant element in the degree to which behaviours were imitated.

    The use of social networks may support some kinds of learning, but as this interactions relies on reports of action rather than the observation of action itself, it is usually a pretty poor way of developing skills.  It may have a route to developing knowledge and the use of video clouds the picture somewhat, but fundamentally we learn best through so called social techniques when we can observe others doing something and see that they get better results than we do – in other words, just like Chimps.

    I explore this in some detail in my book "Informal Learning in Organizations: how to create a culture of continuous learning" published by Kogan Page in September.

  2. Social Learning

    Hello Robin,

    Thanks a lot for your comment. I think we're largely in agreement, but may be using slightly different definitions of social learning.

    We'll be sure to check out your book!

  3. Animals and social learning

    Just wanted to echo comments from Robin that there is a stack of evidence that animals learn socially. Just have a look on google scholar…

    Here'a an example:

    Basis for Cumulative Cultural Evolution in Chimpanzees: Social Learning of a More Efficient Tool-Use Technique

    • Published: January 30, 2013
    • DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055768


    Think about Bees – great social structure and can learn where a food source is by looking at a dance!

    Obviously there are differences but we need to be careful about general statements.

    Best wishes




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Ciara Cunningham

Marketing Manager

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