Individual exploration and selective social learning: balancing exploration–exploitation trade-offs in collective foraging


Search requires balancing exploring for more options and exploiting the ones previously found. Individuals foraging in a group face another trade-off - whether to engage in social learning to exploit the solutions found by others or to solitarily search for unexplored solutions. Social learning can better exploit learned information and decrease the costs of finding new resources, but excessive social learning can lead to over-exploitation and too little exploration for new solutions. We study how these two trade-offs interact to influence search efficiency in a model of collective foraging under conditions of varying resource abundance, resource density and group size. We modelled individual search strategies as Lévy walks, where a power-law exponent (μ) controlled the trade-off between exploitative and explorative movements in individual search. We modulated the trade-off between individual search and social learning using a selectivity parameter that determined how agents responded to social cues in terms of distance and likely opportunity costs. Our results show that social learning is favoured in rich and clustered environments, but also that the benefits of exploiting social information are maximized by engaging in high levels of individual exploration. We show that selective use of social information can modulate the disadvantages of excessive social learning, especially in larger groups and when individual exploration is limited. Finally, we found that the optimal combination of individual exploration and social learning gave rise to trajectories with μ ≈ 2 and provide support for the general optimality of such patterns in search. Our work sheds light on the interplay between individual search and social learning, and has broader implications for collective search and problem-solving.

In Journal of The Royal Society Interface
Ketika Garg
Ketika Garg
Postdoctoral Researcher