Indexed on: 13 Jul '14Published on: 13 Jul '14Published in: Cognition
Learning to avoid danger by observing others can be relatively safe, because it does not incur the potential costs of individual trial and error. However, information gained through social observation might be less reliable than information gained through individual experiences, underscoring the need to apply observational learning critically. In order for observational learning to be adaptive it should be modulated by the skill of the observed person, the demonstrator. To address this issue, we used a probabilistic two-choice task where participants learned to minimize the number of electric shocks through individual learning and by observing a demonstrator performing the same task. By manipulating the demonstrator's skill we varied how useful the observable information was; the demonstrator either learned the task quickly or did not learn it at all (random choices). To investigate the modulatory effect in detail, the task was performed under three conditions of available observable information; no observable information, observation of choices only, and observation of both the choices and their consequences. As predicted, our results showed that observable information can improve performance compared to individual learning, both when the demonstrator is skilled and unskilled; observation of consequences improved performance for both groups while observation of choices only improved performance for the group observing the skilled demonstrator. Reinforcement learning modeling showed that demonstrator skill modulated observational learning from the demonstrator's choices, but not their consequences, by increasing the degree of imitation over time for the group that observed a fast learner. Our results show that humans can adaptively modulate observational learning in response to the usefulness of observable information.