Media Release from the journal Animal Behaviour: July 2009
Note: Photos and video clips of these experiments are available on request.
Scientists show how many wrongs can make a right
Those of you sceptical of decision-making by committee may need to think again. Scientists have successfully demonstrated that groups of people can reach decisions more accurately than individuals. Writing in the latest issue of the journal Animal Behaviour, the researchers report how groups of ten volunteers navigated closer to a target than singletons did, when given only limited information of where to go.
According to lead author, Jolyon Faria, from the University of Leeds, their experiment was designed to test ‘the many wrongs principle’ of animal navigation. “First suggested in 1964 as a way to describe the movement of animal groups, the principle states that individual error can be overcome by staying within a group, so groups can navigate more precisely than singletons. As a result, the group as a whole stays on target, and does so more accurately than any given individual.
“When we provided only very low levels of information about the target, and hence uncertainty was high, large groups navigated the most accurately - as predicted by the principle.” It did take groups longer to reach the target than singletons, however, suggesting that greater accuracy comes at the cost of slower decision-making.
The researchers recruited schoolchildren and colleagues to take part in their experiments, which involved them moving towards one of 16 numbered targets equally placed around the edge of a circular arena. Members of a group were given a shortlist of targets, only one of which was the correct number. Each group member had a different list of targets, but all lists included the correct target’s number. Group members – who were forbidden from communicating directly with one another - were then told to head toward whichever target they liked, as long as they stayed within arm’s reach of everyone else in their group.
“If the ‘many wrongs principle’ was operating, then groups of people, each of whom possessed approximate knowledge of the target location, should have converged on the correct target more accurately than a single person, because all their individual errors should cancel each other out via the mechanism of sticking together as a group,” explained Jolyon. The sequences of target numbers ensured that each person in the group possessed the same amount of ‘directional uncertainty’ about where they should head, he added. Jolyon and his colleagues varied group size from lone individuals up to 10 people, and the length of the shortlist between two and six possible targets. The results showed that the ‘many wrongs principle’ operated, but only when group size and uncertainty were at their greatest.
The researchers, who also came from the Universities of Essex and Bielefeld, hope their new findings might lead to a better understanding how many animals manage to navigate so well. “The principle has been demonstrated using computer simulations, and has some support from studies on bird flocks, but before our experiments, no one had tested whether humans would show a similar kind of improved group-based accuracy. This may help explain how some animals can navigate so accurately, and why animals often navigate in groups,” said Jolyon.
Executive Editor of Animal Behaviour, Dr Louise Barrett commented: “These neat experimental results demonstrate both the value of using humans to test principles derived from animal research, as well as providing a novel demonstration of the power of the ‘vox populi’.”
The work is published online in the journal Animal Behaviour, and was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
Notes to Editors
1. Jolyon Faria is available for interview on tel:+44 (0)7522733093 or email:firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alternatively, contact the ASAB press officer, Dave Stevens.
2. Faria, J.J. et al. (2009) Navigation in human crowds: testing the many-wrongs principle. A pdf of this paper is available on request.
3. Photos and video clips of these experiments are available from Jolyon Faria or Dave Stevens using the contact details above.
4. Animal Behaviour is the journal of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) which was founded in 1936. There are now approximately 2000 members, the majority drawn from Britain and Europe, many of whom are professional biologists working in universities, research institutes or schools. ASAB is a registered charity (no. 268494). For more information visit www.asab.nottingham.ac.uk.
5. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.
The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research. For more information see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk.
For further details, and a copy of the full scientific paper relating to any of the above stories, please contact the authors listed above in the first instance, or contact the ASAB Press Officer. The papers described are also available online at www.sciencedirect.com.
Please mention "the journal Animal Behaviour" when using/referring to any of the above information.