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

Good Health Choices - - Content -

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.

Group think­ing

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.

Ma­jor­ity rule

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

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