A major challenge in studying social behaviour stems from the need to disentangle the behaviour of each individual from the resulting collective. One way to overcome this problem is to construct a model of the behaviour of an individual, and observe whether combining many such individuals leads to the predicted outcome. This can be achieved by using robots. In this review we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach for studies of social behaviour. We find that robots—whether studied in groups of simulated or physical robots, or used to infiltrate and manipulate groups of living organisms—have important advantages over conventional individual-based models and have contributed greatly to the study of social behaviour. In particular, robots have increased our understanding of self-organization and the evolution of cooperative behaviour and communication. However, the resulting findings have not had the desired impact on the biological community. We suggest reasons for why this may be the case, and how the benefits of using robots can be maximized in future research on social behaviour.