Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) transmit preferences for novel foods socially by smelling each other's breath. However, rats fail to learn aversions, acquiring a preference even if the rat whose breath they smell has been poisoned. Rats can distinguish between sick and healthy conspecifics and social learning of both preferences and aversions is present in other species – it is unclear why rats cannot learn aversions socially. We constructed an evolutionary simulation in which a population of rats foraged from a central location, exploiting food sites that could contain edible or toxic foodstuffs. We examined the relationship between toxin lethality and selection for individual versus social learning and discrimination between sick and healthy conspecifics in order to allow learning of both preferences and aversions. At low lethality levels individual learning was selected for and at intermediate levels we found social learning of both preferences and aversions. Finally, given high lethality levels the simulated rats would employ social learning but failed to learn aversions, matching the behaviour of real rats. We argue that Norway rats do not learn aversions socially because their environment may contain only highly lethal toxins which make interaction with a sick conspecific an extremely rare event.