Too shy to learn?

11 March 2014

New research shows bold baboons are better at learning and sharing new tasks than shy baboons, suggesting personality could be a major factor in learning.

Studying wild baboons in Namibia, the researchers examined how personality influenced whether baboons could learn about a novel food source by watching another baboon.

There was a clear advantage to being bold, says lead author Dr Alecia Carter, who performed the work during her ANU PhD studies.

"The shy ones watched the baboon with the novel tasks just as long as the bold ones did, but did not learn the task," she said.

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The authors found a similar mismatch for anxiety. Calm baboons watched a demonstrator for longer than anxious individuals, but it was the anxious individuals who learnt the task.

"These results suggest that in cognitive tasks animals may perform poorly not because they aren't clever enough to solve the task; they may just be too shy or nervous to interact with it," Dr Carter said.

The results also suggest that the baboons' social networks may prevent them from learning from others.

"I couldn't test some individuals no matter how hard I tried," Dr Carter said.

"Although they were given the opportunity to watch a knowledgeable individual who knew how to solve the task, some baboons simply never went near a knowledgeable individual and thus never had the opportunity to learn from others."

The findings may impact how we understand the formation of culture in societies through social learning.

The research is published in PeerJ.