Langley, E. J. G., van Horik, J. O., Whiteside, M. A. et al. 2018. Individuals in larger groups are more successful on spatial discrimination tasks. Animal Behaviour 142, 87-93.

To understand how natural selection may act on cognitive processes, it is necessary to reliably determine interindividual variation in cognitive abilities. However, an individual's performance in a cognitive test may be influenced by the social environment. The social environment explains variation between species in cognitive performances, with species that live in larger groups purportedly demonstrating more advanced cognitive abilities. It also explains variation in cognitive performances within species, with larger groups more likely to solve novel problems than smaller groups. Surprisingly, an effect of group size on individual variation in cognitive performance has rarely been investigated and much of our knowledge stems from impaired performance of individuals reared in isolation. Using a within-subjects design we assayed individual learning performance of adult female pheasants, Phasianus colchicus, while housed in groups of three and five. Individuals experienced the group sizes in a different order, but were presented with two spatial discrimination tasks, each with a distinct cue set, in a fixed order. We found that across both tasks individuals housed in the large groups had higher levels of success than individuals housed in the small groups. Individuals had higher levels of success on their second than their first task, irrespective of group size. We suggest that the expression of individual learning performance is responsive to the current social environment but the mechanisms underpinning this relationship require further investigation. Our study demonstrates that it is important to account for an individual's social environment when attempting to characterize cognitive capacities. It also demonstrates the flexibility of an individual's cognitive performance depending on the social context.