Potential disadvantages of using socially acquired information

Luc–Alain Giraldeau , Thomas J. Valone , Jennifer J. Templeton

Abstract

The acquisition and use of socially acquired information is commonly assumed to be profitable. We challenge this assumption by exploring hypothetical scenarios where the use of such information either provides no benefit or can actually be costly. First, we show that the level of incompatibility between the acquisition of personal and socially acquired information will directly affect the extent to which the use of socially acquired information can be profitable. When these two sources of information cannot be acquired simultaneously, there may be no benefit to socially acquired information. Second, we assume that a solitary individual's behavioural decisions will be based on cues revealed by its own interactions with the environment. However, in many cases, for social animals the only socially acquired information available to individuals is the behavioural actions of others that expose their decisions, rather than the cues on which these decisions were based. We argue that in such a situation the use of socially acquired information can lead to informational cascades that sometimes result in sub–optimal behaviour. From this theory of informational cascades, we predict that when erroneous cascades are costly, individuals should pay attention only to socially generated cues and not behavioural decisions. We suggest three scenarios that might be examples of informational cascades in nature.