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Social Learning Theory

Who Do You Save?

Who holds organizational knowledge and how important is it?

You’re in a small boat with your mother and your child when a storm comes up. You can save one of them—who do you save?

Some international business professors, in an effort to help students understand the differences across societies, have used that scenario in classroom discussions to force students to wrestle with the values and cultural norms behind such a decision.

Most American students respond immediately by saying they would save the child. Asians usually say they would save the mother and that baffles the Americans.

“You can always have another child but you only have one mother,” explain the Asians in the room.

Whether this continues to hold over time will be interesting as cultures interact more, but it raises a question about whether and how we may make assumptions about what is the proper way to act in a difficult situation.

I remembered that scenario when I saw a recent study about animal cultures and conservation.

A study published in the magazine Science raises a version of the question that the Asian and American students faced: Who do you save?[1]

When researchers examined some of the factors important for long-term survival among various animal groups, they found that the ability to transfer social knowledge and social learning helped populations change and adapt their behaviors and preserve the group. As the researchers say, “Most profoundly, culture can play a causal role in establishing and maintaining distinct evolutionary trajectories.”

To do that, though, the animals need to transfer social knowledge, which in turn puts more importance on the players within a group, those able to gather, retain, and pass on that key knowledge. The researchers used the example of African elephants.

A.W. Olbrich, Used with Permission
Elephant Herd
Source: A.W. Olbrich, Used with Permission

The matriarchs in a herd “positively influence fertility rates of younger females...through the transmission of information about the social and ecological landscape.”

This contradicts what our initial assumptions might be—to protect and ensure the survival of the youngest or newborns of a group. Do elephants focus primarily on “saving the babies” in a group? Perhaps, to some extent, but they also focus on saving the older females who can transfer knowledge to younger females, who in turn can “save the babies.”

I don’t mean to push this too far but the research did make me wonder about the danger of losing institutional knowledge as long-term employees or contributors to organizations retire or are pushed out without being tapped for their knowledge. Are we losing memory and knowledge that might help with future adaptation and preservation? Maybe we should think more about “who to save” in an organization?


[1] Brakes, P, Dall, S.R.X., Aplin, L.M., Bearhop, S., Carroll, E.L., Ciucci, P., Fishlock, V., Ford, J.K.B., Garland, E.C., Keith, S.A. McGregor, P.K., Mesnick, S.L., Noad, M.J., Notarbartolo di Sciara, G., Robbins, M.M., Simmonds, M.P., Spina, F., Thornton, A., Wade, P.R., Whiting, M.J., Williams, J. Rendell, L., Whitehead, H., Whiten, A., and Rutz, C. 2019. Animal cultures matter for conservation, 8 March, SCIENCE, vol. 364, Issue 6431: 1032-1034.

More from Nancy K. Napier Ph.D.
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