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For some group decisions, less information is more

Minnows, starlings, wolves – plenty of animals travel together, relying on group decisions to find food and stay safe.

In simple environments, the more information a group of animals has, the better decisions the group can usually make. But in complex environments, that’s not always the case.

Sometimes, information sharing patterns among group-oriented animals can lead to lost information, Dr. Albert Kao of the Santa Fe Institute and Dr. Iain Couzin of the Max Planck Institute and the University of Konstanz found in a new study, published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

The researchers found that many animal groups work on a modular group structure, where sub-groups can split off and return to the main group over a short time period, based on a variety of factors.

“A feature of modular structure is that there’s always information loss, but the effect of that information loss on accuracy depends on the environment,” Kao said in a press release.

That information loss can affect group decisions. The effect is generally negative in simple environments, but in complex settings where animals are taking in much larger amounts of information at a time, that isn’t always the case.

“Surprisingly, in complex environments, the information loss even helps accuracy in a lot of situations,” Kao said.

Kao and Couzin’s work backs up previous studies that found getting bogged down by too many details can lead to poor decisions, and that in a business setting, allowing computers to remember details leads to better performance.

The study also gives new information about how many animals – including humans – form and structure groups. That information in turn can give new insight into how birds flock or fish school – or be applied to new businesses or organizations developing their internal structures for the most effectiveness and efficiency.

“Modular structure can have a profound – and unexpected – impact on the collective intelligence of groups,” says Couzin. “This may indeed be one of the reasons that we see internal structure in so many group-living species, from schooling fish and flocking birds to wild primate groups.”

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

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