What fish can teach us about working in harmony
WHEN IT COMES TO WORKING IN HARMONY AND MAKING DECISIONS AS A GROUP, IT TURNS OUT THAT FISH HAVE A LOT TO TEACH US
In a recent, large-scale study, 3000 men and women of all ages were asked to identify, in an imaginary school of fish, the role they believe they play in their professional life. A quarter of the participants saw themselves as leading fish, and eight percent as the single colourful, creative fish, while 34 percent preferred to play it safe in the middle. Only three percent believed they played the role of the straggler. The rest were undecided.
Whether it be fish or humans, most of us want to be part of something. Some snugly in the middle, others boldly out in front. No one wants to be at the back, or stand out too much. The responses to the question of the professional school of fish can also be applied to other areas of life. Don’t we want to have our own set place in a greater framework, a clearly defined role in almost all areas of life?
But the researchers’ question about our own position in the school of fish has a catch, because it is indirectly aimed at something that doesn’t exist in real schools of fish. While some fish swim further back or in front even in the sea, there is no leading fish – nor are there any hierarchies or fixed positions. The notion that the one swimming out in front is a leader fish is a projection.
It’s our way of thinking; it’s human assumption and interpretation.
Whether fish or human, most of us want to be part of something
For the fish, things actually work a lot better without a leader fish; the group is able to organise itself with minimal rules. If, for example, an enemy attacks, the fish collectively change direction to escape – without any chaos or collisions. In an ideal scenario, a school works like a sensor system, with every fish adhering to two simple rules: Follow the fish in front of you and keep up with the speed of the fish next to you. In nature, this approach works not only for fish, but also for birds and insects.
Go with the flow
And humans? Don’t we find ourselves in much more complex social situations that thwart the natural laws of the school? The answer is no. En masse, we also follow the two behavioural rules typical of the fish. First, we go with the crowd. And second, each person gears themselves around those around them. There doesn’t need to be any overarching plan or any one person to lead the group. Imagine a film director trying to convey the pulsating nature of a metropolis using thousands of extras. All he or she has to do is get the people to walk around. And it works. If he or she tried to direct each individual person’s path, the filming would end in chaos.
And yet the school is by no means only controlled by instinct.
It possesses a sense of wisdom identified back in ancient times.
Aristotle, one of the most influential philosophers and scientists in history, made a very interesting observation, establishing the theory of collective judgement as early as
350BC. According to this theory, a decision reached by a larger group of people can be better than a few individuals or experts. Today, we talk about group mentality or collective intelligence, for both animals and humans. It has become an important field of scientific research in recent years. On an island off the southeast coast of Maine in the US, biologist Thomas Seeley researches what we can learn from bees. According to Seeley,
“Up to 50,000 bees live in a hive. And while there is a queen bee, she doesn’t really lead the rest of the colony. It’s the normal bees who have developed their own methods of settling disagreements and making the best decisions for the community as a whole. I now apply this approach to our faculty meetings.” What had previously bothered him the most were preconceived opinions. He now asks his staff to name all the possible ways of playing with all ideas for a time – and then to secretly vote on them. “Because that’s exactly what the swarm of bees does,” he says.
Does that mean that we no longer need hierarchies if we can make decisions cleverly like the bees? Are managers and supervisors a dying breed? Indeed, a number of studies now show that the sum of the decisions made by a group is usually more appropriate and of a higher quality than those made by individuals, no matter how well qualified they may
Follow the fish in front and keep
the speed of the fish next to you
seem. Some companies have already responded to this, and are getting their staff to vote on important decisions. The management’s task in this system is to ask the right questions and then properly implement the majority decision.
So knowing about collective intelligence has become an important part of a knowledge-based society. But it doesn’t necessarily always spell good things. An individual’s intelligence can also decrease in a collective group. Because when people begin to think as a group, they often find themselves losing the important ability to see things from other perspectives. This can then result in – wait for it – swarm stupidity.
The crucial factors here are the power and ability of the individual to form their own opinion. As long as every group member really does make their own decision, the quality of the overall decision remains high. However, as soon as any external influence creeps in, it lessens the impact.
A team of researchers from the ETH Zurich university has proven exactly this in an experiment: As soon as people realise that others think differently to them about a problem, they start to change their own opinion – at least a little. This reduces the diversity of the responses – and diminishes the quality of the overall result.
Would we no longer need supervisors or hierarchies if we could make decisions as cleverly as a school of fish?
Dirk Helbing and his colleagues asked six different questions to 144 students from ETH Zurich. Among the things they wanted to know were how dense the population in Switzerland is, how long the Switzerland-Italy border is in kilometres, and how many murders there had been in Switzerland in 2006. These are all figures people had heard in the past, but didn’t know specifically. After making their own initial estimate, one group of the students were told the average of all the other students who had been asked the same question. Another group were given the estimates of all the other participants. Each question was repeated five times. The researchers found that the answers provided first were, on average, the best. The more the participants knew about the other students’ estimates, the lower the group’s intelligence dropped.
“When people see how others think and make decisions, opinions converge,” says Helbing, who adds that this effect occurs whenever people come together and discuss things. “A consensus achieved in this way may be a poor decision.” What we can see is that being in the company of others is good, but intensely gearing oneself around others is not necessarily a positive thing. Instead, it is important to cultivate an opinion spectrum, to assert your own opinion. Collective wisdom works well as long as people make choices independently of one another.
Let’s return now to our initial question: If life were a school of fish, which fish would I be? Here, the real answer can only be: “I don’t care where I swim. I’m part of something. And I know who I am and what I stand for. That’s what life’s about.”
(Would we no longer need hierarchies if we could make decisions as cleverly as a school of fish?
‘When people see how others think and make decisions, opinions converge’
a decision reached by a group of people can be better than a few individuals