From ants to zebras, animals are influenced by the behavior of others. At the simplest level, social support can reduce neophobia, increasing animals’ exploration of novel spaces, foods, and other environmental stimuli. Animals can also learn new skills more quickly and more readily after observing others perform them. How then can we apply animals’ proclivity to socially learn to enhance their care and welfare in captive settings? Here, I review the ways in which animals (selectively) use social information, and propose tactics for leveraging that to refine the behavioral management of captive animals: to enhance socialization techniques, enrichment strategies, and training outcomes. It is also important to consider, however, that social learning does not always promote the uniform expression of new behaviors. There are differences in animals’ likelihood to seek out or use socially provided information, driven by characteristics such as species, rank, age, and personality. Additionally, social learning can result in inexact transmission or the transmission of undesirable behaviors. Thus, understanding when, how, and why animals use social information is key to developing effective strategies to improve how we care for animals across settings and, ultimately, enhance captive animal welfare.
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