Flexible Social Learning of Technical Skills: The Case of Action Coordination


Expert performance of many techniques requires learning precise motor plans, sophisticated control of the timing and trajectory of one’s movements, and careful monitoring and integration of sensory and proprioceptive feedback. However, the cognitive mechanisms responsible for acquiring such skills from others remain elusive in part because of the flexibility with which technical skill transmission occurs: the same skill can be learned under a range of contexts that make substantially different demands of both the learner and model in a social learning interaction. This chapter proposes that in order to explain this flexibility it is important to situate social learning within the context of coordinated social interactions. We demonstrate how existing models of social learning presuppose a unidirectional type of interaction that impose rigidity on the learned behaviour, and discuss how opening up the scope of social learning interactions to incorporate bidirectional information flow between models and learners allows us to draw parallels with the joint action literature on action coordination, which is supported by a suite of flexible, contextually sensitive cognitive and behavioural mechanisms. Considering social learning as a type of action coordination can help to explain both the flexibility and rigidity of technical traditions in a way that is coherent with the anthropological record on complex skill learning.

Invited chapter accepted for edited book by Charbonneau, M. (ed.) The Evolution of Techniques: Rigidity and Flexibility in Use, Transmission, and Innovation in the Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology. Planned publication 2024