Monday, November 07, 2011

Eric B and Rakim explain social learning

OK, People Will Talk is creeping onto the shelves (and whatever the electronic equivalent of a shelf is) and we can begin the task of examining the book's themes through the medium of golden-age hiphop.

Finding a tune for Chapter 1 is easy. The chapter's called 'Follow the leader'. (Although, unlike one later chapter, it's not named specifically after the track in question. I did briefly wonder about naming every chapter after an old-school joint, but never really put in the effort to do so.) You can read this chapter for free.

What a fantastic record. Video hasn't aged so well, though, has it?

Social learning occurs when animals make a decision not by direct experience, trial and error, but by copying what others are doing. It's an important aspect of how many species decide where to eat (in, e.g., sticklebacks), where to nest (many birds), and who to mate with (guppies, humans).

Piggybacking on another like this saves the effort and risk of finding something out for yourself, and is an immensely powerful strategy for exploiting your environment. When different learning strategies are set against one another, social learners outcompete individual learners. (On the other hand, it can also lead to information cascades, if everyone copies everyone else blindly without ever looking at the raw data on which decisions are based.)

Animals don't copy willy nilly. Whether they copy depends on their own internal state: animals who know less, because they are young, for example, or because they failed last time, are more likely to copy others. (It makes perfect sense to be young and impressionable, in other words.) And who they copy depends on the models on offer. The mating and foraging choices of big fish are more likely to be copied, for example, because a big fish is old and experienced; the embodiment of its own good decisions.

Humans are the champion social learners. Where did you get your tastes, your politics, your language and accent, your religion, and so on? By sampling the options and picking the one you liked best? Course not, it was by copying your family and friends. Social learning lies at the heart of culture and technology: it allows us to pass things on, and means that instead of reinventing the wheel, you can invent the bicycle.

The ability to observe and copy others is also one of the pillars of reputation. It's not exactly reputation, at least as far as people are concerned: copying someone is not the same as observing them and using that to plan how you treat them. Social learning is, though, how things get reputation - it's what happens when you choose a restaurant or a movie based on someone else's recommendation. It's how brands get built and broken.

Unlike other species, humans also give something back to those from whom they socially learn. Prestige, Joseph Henrich and Francisco Gil-White argue, is the tribute that the copiers pay to the copied. By honouring those who are excellent at something, the rest of us can get up close to them and hope to learn from them.

The evolution of prestige was something new in the world. Previously, displays had been largely repulsive - designed to show dominance and deter challenges. But prestige is an attractive force, which wins people over rather than putting them off. (Prestige and dominance are the equivalents of soft power and hard power in international relations.)

Chapter 2 is about costly signalling - the idea that conspicuous displays of virtue are also displays of intellectual, material or physical wealth. It's hard to imagine that there might be any hiphop records that touch on the subject of showing off, but I'll try and ferret one out. If you've an interest in evolutionary psychology, behavioural economics, fat basslines and lyrical flow, please feel free to make a suggestion. Late 80s/early 90s preferred, but I'm not going to be too dogmatic about this.

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