Information Overload & Groupthink – What the Latest Ant Research Can Teach Us

by ARWA ABURAWA

Information overload may not be a modern phenomenon, but the internet age has certainly elevated it to new heights. Just about anything and everything you could think of can be found at the tap of laptop button. You no longer have to search through archives, libraries and encyclopedias for answers to obscure questions. You can just google it.

The only downside to this plethora of information is that it can all be a bit too much sometimes. Making decisions when you have too much information is also one of the most difficult things to do. However, new research has found that hard-working ants may have a unique solution to this modern problem.

Stephen Pratt, an associate professor at Arizona State University, and researcher Takao Sasaki found that ants were able to overcome information overload by simply making decisions collectively. In the experiment carried out, ants were forced to choose a nest in a site with two nests and another site with eight nests. Half of the nests were unsuitable and damaged. The researchers looked into how individual ants chose their nests and compared it to the decisions made collectively by the ant colony.

They found that, collectively, the ants were able to make better decisions when faced with information overload at the sites with 8 potential nests. In contrast, individual ants made worse decisions when faced with the 8 nests. “By sharing the burden of decision-making, colonies avoid the mistakes that a solitary animal makes when taking on too much information,” explains Professor Pratt. “What’s great about these ants is that we can see exactly how they do this, by making sure that no ant has to process more information than it is able to.”

In the experiment, most ants visit only one potential nest. This limits the possibility of information overload and the final decision is made collectively by bringing together the information.

As Sasaki explained to OnIslam.net, “In other words, by having each [ant] worker assess only a subset of available options, they could in turn share the burden of information processing. Indeed many cognitive overload experiments have shown, we often make better decisions when we limit the number of options.” In the research paper, the scientists write that any irrationality by individual ants is therefore overwhelmed by the rationality of the group.

However rationality in groups is not as common as you would think. Over the last couple of decades, the notion of ‘groupthink’ amongst human has gained a lot of credit within the scientific community. The term refers to the collective bad decisions that humans make in groups due to social pressures to avoid conflict or follow norms.

As such, individuals are often better at making decisions alone rather than while being in a group and being influenced by factors such as misplaced confidence, social norms and behaviours. This recent study by Pratt and Sasaki, however, suggests that the animal world is a lot more rational in groups than humans are.

“Groupthink occurs because of social pressure—group members avoid social conflicts. In ant colonies, as far as we know, colony members are not afraid of disagreeing with others,” Sasaki told OnIslam.net. “Social insects, such as ants and honeybees, have a longer history of social life than humans (and most other animals), so we believe that natural selection has shaped this very elaborate group cognition.”

He also added that: “From an outside standpoint, it looks like some central authority is giving them [ants] orders, but in actuality, their complex, coordinated behavior emerges from just local interactions among group members. This decentralized organization is fascinating in its own right, but it is also a source of inspiration for designing better computer programs or control strategies for collective robotics.”

So we humans have a lot to learn from ants and the way they make decisions. As Sasaki remarks, the lesson from their experiment is that it is sometimes better to evaluate a small number of options when making a decision rather than trying to look at everything.

Sites such as Amazon with their ratings and suggestions may hold useful information, but they are also likely to lead to information overload and therefore wrong decisions. As Sasaki also points out, “don’t simply follow the majority; they might be wrong themselves.”

References

Sasaki, T & Pratt, S.C. Groups have a larger cognitive capacity than individuals. Current Biology. 2012.

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