Monkey See, Monkey Don’t Do: Social Learning and the Casual Observer


We learn by watching mistakes being made as well as by making mistakes, according to a study by Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Japan.

Through observing the behaviour of monkeys, researchers located a neural circuit believed to be dedicated solely to recognising social errors in others.

The findings, published in the journal Frontiers unveils more about the brain and the nature of social learning. Researchers believe that this neural process exists to protect humans and animals in unfamiliar social environments.


Researchers observed two monkeys  which monitored each other’s action for their own action selection.

A game involving the monkey’s partner’s response being “right” was played in order for the observing monkey to elicit a treat.

In some games, the researchers changed the rules which meant the monkey was likely to be wrong in its selection. The observing monkey in this case did not receive a treat.

The experiment showed that a group of neurons exhibited a substantial increase in activity associated with witnessing another’s errors. The neurons were located in the medical frontal cortex (MFC) – the part of the brain that processes self-generated errors.

Nearly half of the MFC neurons showed activity changes consistent with general reward-mission signals.

The remaining neurons however responded specifically to witnessing another’s mistakes.

The findings indicate that the brain contains a dedicated circuit for monitoring others’ mistakes during social interactions.

Brain structure

The structure in the brain that supports the monitoring of other’s errors is poorly understood. These mechanisms however are important as they

underlie observational learning and thus play a big part in allowing for adaptive behaviour in uncertain social environments.

These neurons are located in the front of the brain in monkeys, and according to co-author Masaki Isoda, humans are likely to have similar cells.


Researchers were surprised to find that the monkey’s neurons showed signs of responding to another animal’s error but not to his or her own mistake.

A “mirror neuron system” – a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another – has previously been proposed as a way for the brain to make sense of the actions of others.

This new research however suggests a more complex picture of what happens in the brain when witnessing another making a gaffe.


Original source: Frontiers: Social error monitoring in the macaque frontal cortex 

Image: with thanks to Darren Dean of RGB Freestock