Humans copy rapidly increasing choices in a multiarmed bandit problem

U. Toelch, M.J. Bruce, M.T.H. Meeus, S.M. Reader

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Conformist social learning, the tendency to acquire the most common trait in a group, allows individuals to rapidly acquire established beneficial traits from a multitude of options. However, conformist strategies hinder acquisition of novel advantageous behavior patterns, because such innovations are by definition uncommon. This raises the possibility that proxy cues of the success of novel traits may be utilized to identify and acquire advantageous innovations and disregard failing options. We show that humans use changes in trait frequency over time as such a cue in an economic game. Participants played a three-alternative forced choice game (i.e., a multi-armed bandit), using social information to attempt to locate a high reward that could change location. Participants viewed temporal changes in how many players chose each option in two successive rounds. Participants supplemented conformist strategies with a “copy-increasing-traits” strategy. That is, regardless of the traits absolute population frequencies, participants' choices were guided by changes in trait frequencies. Thus, humans can detect advantageous innovations by monitoring how many individuals adopt these over time, adopting traits increasing in frequency, and abandoning traits decreasing in frequency. Copying rapidly increasing traits allows identification and acquisition of advantageous innovations, and is thus potentially key in facilitating their early diffusion and cultural evolution.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)326-333
Number of pages8
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Publication statusPublished - 2010


  • Innovation
  • Social learning
  • Conformist transmission
  • Cultutal evolution


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