Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Can a Horde of Idiots be a Genius?

Let’s face it: The typical individual is not that bright. Just check out these human specimens:

Yet somehow, if you get enough numbskulls together, the group can make some pretty intelligent decisions. We’ve seen this in a wide variety of organisms facing a number of different challenges.

In a brilliant series of studies, Jean-Louis Deneubourg, a professor at the Free University of Brussels, and his colleagues tested the abilities of Argentine ants (a common dark-brown ant species) to collectively solve foraging problems. In one of these studies, the ants were provided with a bridge that connected the nest to a food source. This bridge split and fused in two places (like eyeglass frames), but at each split one branch was shorter than the other, resulting in a single shortest-path and multiple longer paths. After a few minutes, explorers crossed the bridge (by a meandering path) and discovered the food. This recruited foragers, each of which chose randomly between the short and the long branch at each split. Then suddenly, the foragers all started to prefer the shortest route. How did they do that?

This figure from the Goss et al 1989 paper in Naturwissemschaften shows (a) the design of a single module, (b) ants scattered on the bridge after 4 minutes (I promise they’re there), and (c) ants mostly on the shortest path after 8 minutes

You can think of it this way: a single individual often tries to make decisions based on the uncertain information available to it. But if you have a group of individuals, they will likely each have information that differs somewhat from the information of others in the group. If they each make a decision based on their own information alone, they will likely result in a number of poor decisions and a few good ones. But if they can each base their decisions on the accumulation of all of the information of the group, they stand a much better chance of making a good decision. The more information accumulated, the more likely they are to make the best possible decision.

In the case of the Argentine ant, the accumulated information takes the form of pheromone trails. Argentine ants lay pheromone trails both when leaving the nest and when returning to the nest. Ants that are lucky enough to take a shorter foraging route return to the nest sooner, increasing the pheromone concentration of the route each way. In this way, shorter routes develop more concentrated pheromone trails faster, which attract more ants, which further increase pheromone concentration of the shortest routes. In this way, an ant colony can make an intelligent decision (take the shortest foraging route) without any individual doing anything more intelligent than following a simple rule (follow the strongest pheromone signal).

Home is where the heart is. Photo of a bee swarm by Tom Seeley
Honeybee colonies also solve complicated tasks with the use of communication. Tom Seeley at Cornell University and his colleagues have investigated the honeybee group decision-making process of finding a new home. When a colony outgrows their hive, hundreds of scouts will go in search of a suitable new home, preferably one that is high off the ground with a south-facing entrance and room to grow. If a scout finds such a place, she returns to the colony and performs a waggle dance, a dance in which her body position and movements encode the directions to her site and her dancing vigor relates to how awesome she thinks the site is. 

Some scouts that see her dance may be persuaded to follow her directions and check out the site for themselves, and if impressed, may return to the hive and perform waggle dances too. Or they may follow another scout’s directions to a different site or even strike out on their own. Eventually, the majority of the scouts are all dancing the same vigorous dance. But interestingly, few scouts ever visit more than one site. Better sites simply receive more vigorous “dance-votes” and then attract more scouts to do the same. Like ants in search of a foraging path, the intensity of the collective signal drives the group towards the best decision. Once a quorum is reached, the honeybees fly off together to their new home.

But groups can develop better solutions than individuals even without communication. Gaia Dell’Ariccia at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and her colleagues explored homing pigeon navigation by placing GPS trackers on the backs of pigeons and releasing them from a familiar location either alone or in a group of six. Because they were all trained to fly home from this site, they all found their way home regardless of whether they were alone or in a group. But as a flock, the pigeons left sooner, rested less, flew faster, and took a more direct route than did the same birds when making the trip alone. By averaging the directional tendencies of everyone in the group, they were able to mutually correct the errors of each individual and follow the straightest path.

In each of these examples, each individual has limited and uncertain information, but each individual has information that may be slightly different than their neighbors’. By combining this diverse information and making a collective decision, hordes of idiots can make genius decisions.

Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Couzin, I. (2009). Collective cognition in animal groups Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13 (1), 36-43 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2008.10.002

2. Goss, S., Aron, S., Deneubourg, J., & Pasteels, J. (1989). Self-organized shortcuts in the Argentine ant Naturwissenschaften, 76 (12), 579-581 DOI: 10.1007/BF00462870

3. Dussutour, A., Nicolis, S., Deneubourg, J., & Fourcassié, V. (2006). Collective decisions in ants when foraging under crowded conditions Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 61 (1), 17-30 DOI: 10.1007/s00265-006-0233-x

4. List C, Elsholtz C, & Seeley TD (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 of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 364 (1518), 755-62 PMID: 19073474

5. Dell'Ariccia, G., Dell'Omo, G., Wolfer, D., & Lipp, H. (2008). Flock flying improves pigeons' homing: GPS track analysis of individual flyers versus small groups Animal Behaviour, 76 (4), 1165-1172 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2008.05.022

6. Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley

7. The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller


  1. Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups...

  2. Applying the same general idea to people, you might want to see Surowiecki, J. (2005), The Wisdom of Crowds.