Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Why This Horde of Idiots is No Genius

At first look (in Part 1 of this post), swarm theory seems to predict that the larger the social group, the better the resulting group decisions and behaviors. Then, with over 300 million of us in the U.S., shouldn’t we only be making brilliant decisions? And with over 7 billion worldwide, shouldn’t we have already prevented all international conflicts, cancer, and environmental destruction? And why the heck is Snooki still everywhere we look?!

A riot in Vancouver, Canada after the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup
in 2011 left the city with scars. Photo by Elopde at Wikimedia Commons.

Many large groups of people make incredibly stupid decisions. Like proverbial lemmings (a hoax perpetuated by Disney), large groups of people have caused incredible damage to their community after their hockey team lost the Stanley Cup, quit their jobs and given away all of their possessions believing the end of the world was coming on May 21, 2011 (ehem… we’re still here), and insisted that wearing baggy pants around the thighs is a reasonable thing to do even though it is not sexy and it trips you when you try to run. Where are we going wrong?

Tom Seeley at Cornell University has gained tremendous insight into effective group decision-making from his years observing honeybees, which he shares with us in his book, Honeybee Democracy. (By the way, this is also one of the best books out there for painting a picture of the life of a behavioral biologist).

Honeybees live in swarms of thousands. When the hive becomes overcrowded, about a third of the worker bees will stay home to rear a new queen while the old queen and the rest of the hive will leave to begin the process of finding a new home. During this time, the migrants will coalesce on a nearby branch while they search out and decide among new home options. This process can take anywhere from hours to days during which the colony is vulnerable and exposed. But they can’t be too hasty: choosing a new home that is too small or too exposed could be equally deadly.

This homeless honeybee swarm found an unconventional "branch". They'd better
decide on a new home before the cyclist gets back!  Photo by Nino Barbieri at Wikimedia.

Although each swarm has a queen, she plays no role in making this life-or-death decision. Rather, this decision is made by a consensus among 300-500 scout bees that results after an intense “dance-debate”. Then, as a single united swarm, they leave their branch and move into their new home. At this point, it’s critical that the swarm is unified in their choice of home site, because a split-decision runs the risk of creating a chaos in which the one and only queen can be lost and the entire hive will perish. This is a high-stakes decision that honeybees make democratically, efficiently, and amazingly, they almost always make the best possible choice! How do they do that? And how can we do that?


Each dot represents where on the body this dancer
was head-bumped by a dancer for a competing site.
Each time she's bumped, she's a little less
enthusiastic about her own dance. Figure from
Seeley, et al. 2012 paper in Science.
The honeybee house-hunting process has several features that allow them as a group to hone in on the best possible solution. The process begins when a scout discovers a site that has potential for a new home. She returns to her swarm and reports on this site, using a waggle dance that encodes the direction and distance to the site and her estimate of its quality. The longer she dances, the better she perceived the site to be. Other scouts do the same, perhaps visiting the same site or maybe a new one, and they report their findings in dance when they return. More scouts are recruited and the swarm breaks into a dancing frenzy, with many scouts dancing for multiple possible sites. Over time, scouts that are less enthusiastic about their discovered site stop dancing, in part discouraged by dancers for other sites that head-bump them while beeping. Eventually, the dancing scouts are unified in their dance for what is almost always the best site. The swarm warms up their flight muscles, and off they go, in unison to their new home.

What can we learn from this process? Tom has summarized his wisdom gained from observing honeybees in the following:

Tom Seeley’s Five Habits of Highly Effective Hives

1. “Group members share a goal”.
This is easy for honeybees, but not as much for us. All of the honeybees in a swarm share the same goal: Find the best possible home as quickly as possible. People are not always similar in our goals, needs and wants and one person’s goals are sometimes in direct conflict with another person’s goals. The trick here is finding common ground.

2. “Group members search broadly to find possible solutions to the problem”.
Seek out information from as many sources as you can. Be creative. Use your personal experience. And if the group is diverse, there will be a broader range of personal experience to harness. Diversity increases the ability of a group to make the best decisions.

3. “Group members contribute their information freely and honestly”.
This requires a welcoming and supportive environment that withholds judgment of the individuals for the ideas expressed. You don’t have to agree with an idea to respect and listen to the person expressing it.

4. “Group members evaluate the options independently and they vote independently”.
Just as scout bees don’t dance for a site they have not visited and assessed themselves, we should not advocate possible solutions or candidates that we have not ourselves looked into and thought critically about. A group can only be smarter than the individuals in it if the individuals think for themselves.

5. “Group members aggregate their votes fairly”.
Everyone gets a vote and each one counts equally. ‘Nuff said.

We can learn a lot from these honeybees. Even when the stakes are high, we can make good decisions for our group if we are open, honest, inclusive, fair and think independently.


Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Seeley, T., Visscher, P., Schlegel, T., Hogan, P., Franks, N., & Marshall, J. (2011). Stop Signals Provide Cross Inhibition in Collective Decision-Making by Honeybee Swarms Science, 335 (6064), 108-111 DOI: 10.1126/science.1210361

2. List, C., Elsholtz, C., & Seeley, T. (2009). Independence and interdependence in collective decision making: an agent-based model of nest-site choice by honeybee swarms Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364 (1518), 755-762 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0277

3. Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley

4. The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller

5. The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

1 comment:

  1. Even though most of this story is based on honeybees and how they react most of what is said is true for humans as well. Honeybees travel and groups and are known for their group and some are based on their "title" such as being the queen. Humans also have their own groups, everyone is part of a group rather they know it or not. Our groups depend on social rank, religion, how we act, how we dress, everything. Each group also has a "leader" but the leader does not controll every aspect of the other group members life just like the Queen honeybee doesnt. Honeybees and humans have many similar concepts when it comes to being in groups.

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