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Persuasive companions can be wrong: the use of misleading social information in nutmeg mannikins

By Guillaume Rieucau and Luc-Alain Giraldeau


Animals sample their surrounding environment to collect information, which can be obtained personally or by tracking the behavior of others (i.e., social information). Although social information appears to be generally advantageous, it can also be detrimental and may even conflict with personal information. We tested the effect that the strength of social information, and ultimately its persuasiveness, can have on an animal's decision to use it or not by conducting an experiment using single nutmeg mannikins (Lonchura punctulata), which were offered a foraging choice after observation of videos of feeding or nonfeeding conspecifics. The persuasiveness of social information was amplified by increasing the number and changing the behavior of conspecifics that had previously been seen feeding at 1 of 2 feeders. In addition, we modulated the certainty of an individual's personal information. Some birds had prior experience of a marked feeder always containing easily accessible food, whereas other birds experienced that this was only the case in half of the trials. Our results show that animals provided with sufficiently persuasive social information will tend to reduce the weight of even highly reliable personal information. This provides the first experimental evidence consistent with the propagation of informational cascades in nonhuman animals, which have been invoked to explain market crashes in economics or panic rushes in human crowds. Copyright 2009, Oxford University Press.

DOI identifier: 10.1093/beheco
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