The Smart Swarm

Reading Peter Miller’s book, The Smart Swarm: How Understanding Flocks, Schools, and Colonies Can Make Us Better at Communicating, Decision Making, and Getting Things Done, (2010) got me thinking.  I want to liberally share from his book (pages 262 – 268) in this post.  If you find this intriguing you may want to get a hold of his book.

Sometimes we humans have a little trouble thinking for ourselves. We get caught up in  “social contagion”. Take for an example standing ovations. It’s a pretty simple way of thinking about contagious behavior and is one we all pretty much understand.  For a standing ovation to occur a small group of individuals may stand and clap at the end of a performance and then a few others join in and then a few others and pretty soon it just seems like the socially correct thing to do so basically everybody is standing.  That doesn’t mean that everybody is truly appreciative, at equally high levels, of the performance.  In fact, there may be some who are not all that appreciative but just would rather be part of the social contagion rather than to abstain.

We humans could probably benefit from learning how to be smart in groups. In the natural world the mechanisms vary widely, depending upon the particular problems swarms are dealing with, but they often include:

a reliance on local knowledge  (which means maintaining a diversity of information);

the application of simple rules of  thumb  (which minimizes computational needs);

repeated interactions among group members (helping to amplify faint but important signals and speed up decision-making);

the use of quorum thresholds (to improve the accuracy of decisions);

and a healthy dose of randomness in individual behavior (to keep a group from getting stuck in problem-solving routes).

Animals – whether they are bees, birds or fish may move and accomplish specific purposes in swarms, flocks or schools.  In the animal kingdom it seems clear that large groups of individuals, without supervision, seem to be following some rules to accomplishing tasks.

Compared to the clever things that natural swarms of bees do, standing ovations look haphazard and arbitrary.  This may be common in many other situations in which yours and my behavior is strongly influenced by what other people are saying or doing.

For better or worse, humans don’t behave the same way as animals. To vastly oversimplify our dilemma, we’re torn between belonging to a community and maximizing our personal welfare. We need more than our natural instincts to help us work toward common goals. We need things like legal contracts, taxes, laws against littering, and social norms about waiting your turn and not talking during a movie.

Thomas Schelling in Micromotives and Macrobehavior, 1978, states that “a good part of social organization–of what we call society–consists of institutional agreements to overcome these divergences between perceived an individual interest and some larger collective bargaining.”

Unlike ants, bees and birds we often don’t know the right thing to do. Caught up in our own complex systems, we struggle with a lack of information, a poor sense of how one thing affects another, and an inability to predict outcomes, whether we happen to the students in Boston trying to identify terrorists, test pilots and engineers in Seattle playing the beer game, control room operators in Akron struggling to gain control of a failing power grid, undergraduates in Philadelphia puzzling over network games, protesters in Reykjavík facing a banking system that’s gone belly up, pilgrims in Mina pushing across a dangerous lead crowded bridge, or guests at a graduation in New Haven wondering whether to stand and applaud Hillary Clinton.  For all of us sooner or later during the right thing is anything but simple.

Because we find it so difficult to understand the complex systems we are part of, we might be tempted to give up and simply do what others are doing. But if standing ovations are any guide, you can be sure of one thing: You don’t want to go through life applauding events you didn’t really enjoy. Nor do you want to end up regretting that she passed up a perfectly good chance to stand up in sheer for something truly wonderful.


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