Why Social Learning Matters

Photo by Gabriel Crismariu on Unsplash

There is only one way to learn, and this way is through other people. That’s what we call social learning — in essence, the type of learning rightfully derived from other people’s behaviors.

Social learning is what has helped humans develop through generations. It’s what helped pass down ideas of the greatest thinkers in history, be them philosophers, scientists, or mathematicians. It’s the reason why you’re able to read this sentence at this very moment.

What makes social learning such an interesting concept? Here it is: humans are the only beings capable of doing it.

The ability to share information and learn something together is a strong human nature that makes us different from other animals. That makes social learning humanity’s main advantage over other species, including primates. Not only that, but humans have cognitive control over their behavior. Ever since birth, we learn the differences between what’s “right” and “wrong”, as in what should be imitated and what shouldn’t. That, of course, will largely depend on the social and cultural settings a person was brought up in.

Humans learn from their parents. Their peers. Their teachers. By themselves? Not so much. In fact…

No one has ever learned anything by themselves.

Anyone can try and refute that by mentioning how books and the internet have been their main source of education throughout the years. They could go on about how self-taught they are, when in reality, they’re not “self-taught” at all. Let’s unpack that.

A self-taught person is someone who has deliberately chosen to learn without the help of formal education, such as a teacher or professor — an autodidactic. But can anyone really be “self-taught”, in the sense that they can learn concepts and actions all by themselves?

That’s humanly impossible. It’s always been, and always will be. People teach people, regardless of the setting or the means.

Everything we consume, whether it is a school textbook or an article online, carries with it the baggage of years of learning done from its creators. It’s an accumulation of knowledge: an author has acquired their information from other sources — other books written by other authors, who in turn have their own particular experiences to share. Their sources, in turn, have gathered their information from previous sources, which aren’t restricted to books, only.

People are honest when they say a book is a world in your hands. Behind every book, there’s a powerful mix of context and generations-long knowledge, as well as a collage of personal experiences and thoughts. Even when it comes to books, the actions represented through words can and will be mirrored in real life.

But where did it all start? How did people realize they needed to look up to someone else’s values and actions in order to be able to fulfill their own needs?

None of us were there to see it, and you reserve every right to question the veracity of early human history. But we can begin with a few studies from people who dedicate their lives to understanding human behavior.

Social learning was what kept early humans alive.

How did early humans come to discover the actions they needed to take in order to survive? How did they create things and instruments, knowing that they would be helpful all throughout history?

According to Scientific American, they didn’t. All they did was mimic what others were already doing. Back then, knowledge was already being passed on and acquired through social learning.

These people lived in the wild, meaning they had to use everything at their disposal in order not to live, but to survive. “Survival” is the key word here. These people had the will and the determination to live regardless of the extreme situations they were exposed to on a daily basis. People needed to learn things from others if they wanted to stay alive and continue their bloodline — things they needed to learn by observing other people.

Now, how they decided to apply the skills and knowledge they’d acquired was completely up to them.

In Cultural Psychology, there’s an interesting concept called “The Ratchet Effect”, which we’ve all experienced in our own ways. In simple terms, The Ratchet Effect happens when cultural information is learned, and then modified/improved according to a person’s own values. The reason it’s called The Ratchet Effect is because cultural information can’t be unlearned — it can only be changed and improved upon. The same way a ratchet can’t turn backwards. See?

We’ve all learned how to live in society, based on our own cultures, ever since we were born. We observed our parents, our teachers, our idols, our Gods, and our friends. We can’t unlearn what we’ve learned from them, and that’s amazing. We can only go forward from there, whether that means living by those lessons, or using them as a motivation to walk a different path.

Social learning beats traditional learning.

David Perell’s essay, “How Philosophers Think”, has a brilliant passage that says:

“(…) you understand an idea not when you’ve memorized it, but when you know why its specific form was chosen over all the alternatives. Only once you’ve traveled the roads that were earnestly explored but ultimately rejected can you grasp an idea firmly and see it clearly, with all the context that supports it.

What that means is: Knowing is one thing. Exploring is another. And both are crucial for learning and understanding. Here’s an example:

An aspiring doctor may read all of the books suggested by their professor and become the top of his class. Good for them. Now, tell them to masterfully use a scalpel and save someone’s life based on the knowledge they’ve acquired only through reading.

They may get lucky and do a great job on their first try, but they’ll most likely fail miserably. Unless they’ve mastered both theory and practice — the practice being the true social learning aspect of knowledge — they haven’t fully learned anything. Their mastery would require them to observe a doctor perform surgery on a patient, as well as practice by themselves afterward.

The mental effort required to study complicated concepts should never be undermined. Yet, it shouldn’t be one’s sole source of learning. Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory says exactly that: humans’ learning and behavior is based on “observing, modelling, and imitating the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others.”

That’s not all: social learning goes to show that people learn better and attain more information by teaching others. That’s another way studying and learning in a social setting rather than individually may help people better understand certain concepts, as well as the world around them.

We’re in the best era to learn socially.

In a modern information-overloaded era, learning with like-minded people and exchanging thoughts with them might bring better outcomes and new perspectives to all of us.

Take Goodreads or Reddit. Are you a user of any of those? When information comes from sound sources, these apps can be the ideal places for rich discussions. With so many subgroups available for connection and conversation, every dutiful moment spent on these platforms can be a chance to learn something new from someone else.

A certain topic you thought you knew all about may suddenly show several unexplored facets. You wouldn’t be able to uncover those, hadn’t you been in touch with other people. It’s pretty interesting how deep discussions can go when you’re willing to learn and share your point of view.

Not to mention, the number of different perspectives on a single topic is huge. And since the number of perspectives directly connects with one’s understanding and depth, we should all consider learning socially.

Regardless if it’s through in-person conversations or even online forums, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re learning something. The major difference between online and in-person conversations is that you can’t look at someone’s expressions and body language through the screen. This, in turn, could diminish the experience for some people.

However you choose to do it, It’ll be worth your time, as social learning is essentially the most efficient and effective way of learning.

Social learning leaves a legacy. Both online and offline.

The Bible is a fascinating example of this. Although many believe the Bible was only passed down orally, it was also written in scrolls. Had the word of God not been collated and written down, we’d never have known the Bible as we know it today. Thanks to both word-of-mouth communication and written communication, we now have one of the most important books in history available to us.

Writing things down is essential for learning. I can’t stress that enough. However, even more important than writing and reading your own writing is reading other people’s writing. Not only to learn concepts, but to understand the human thinking process and the context in which those humans were inserted at the time.

It’s all about gathering different perspectives, which you wouldn’t be able to come up with yourself. You don’t necessarily need to be reading a genius’s annotations to learn something new. Never underestimate people’s intelligence. You can always learn something new by reading, observing, and listening — no matter whose words you’re reading, who you’re observing, or who you’re listening to.

Give people a chance to teach you things. You’d be surprised with how much you can learn from a simple passage or conversation.

Above all, social learning is what keeps us alive.

We’ve all “copied and pasted” our way through life. Even though many people would see this in a negative light, that’s exactly what we were supposed to be doing all along.

Our parents, teachers, and peers were responsible for teaching us the foundation of things. How to write our names, how to cross a street, how to speak, how to be quiet when someone else is speaking. Without essentially imitating other people, none of us would be able to socially adapt. We wouldn’t be able to learn from our failures, and we wouldn’t have learned what separates “right” from “wrong”.

We live, we learn it, and we adapt what we’ve learned to our own specific needs. We experiment with new styles, new “personalities”, new hobbies, and we’re swayed by people’s opinions until we learn to combine them into our own. We wouldn’t be able to be ourselves today if we hadn’t done just that. And believe it or not, we still have a lot to go through.

The takeaway: allow yourself to learn from people, whoever they might be. Pay attention. Observe. Discuss. Doubt. Look for a deeper meaning. Read between the lines. We’re social beings who can only go forward from here.

See you next time,

Kazuki

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Founder of Glasp / a member of #ODF9 & Berkeley SkyDeck alum / Leaving a utilitarian legacy for future generations with AI

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Kazuki Nakayashiki

Kazuki Nakayashiki

Founder of Glasp / a member of #ODF9 & Berkeley SkyDeck alum / Leaving a utilitarian legacy for future generations with AI

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