The Right Mix of Independence and Interdependence for Group Decision Making

My Mom is a beekeeper so I've been reading articles on how bees live and work. Much about bee life is very interesting and relevant in other contexts: their teamwork, how they relate to their CEO (queen bee), division of labor, and more. Below's a fascinating excerpt from a recent academic paper on how honey bees select their nest. They employ a blend of individual, independent assessments of quality nest sites and consensus-driven deference around the most promising, emerging nest sites. With a right combination of independence and interdependence, they are able to make a decision that draws upon collective wisdom while also avoiding groupthink.

We have developed an agent-based model of nest-site choice among honeybees. The model not only explicitly represents the behaviour of each individual bee as a simple stochastic process, but it also allows us to simulate the bees' decision-making behaviour under a wide variety of empirically motivated as well as hypothetical assumptions. The model predicts that, consistently with empirical observations by Seeley & Buhrman (2001), the bees manage to reach a consensus on the best nest site for a large range of parameter conditions, under both more and less demanding criteria of consensus. Moreover, the model shows that the remarkable reliability of the bees' decision-making process stems from the particular interplay of independence and interdependence between them. The bees are independent in assessing the quality of different nest sites on their own, but interdependent in giving more attention to nest sites that are more strongly advertised by others.

Without interdependence, the rapid convergence of the bees' dances to a consensus would be undermined; there would not be a ‘snowballing’ of attention on the best nest site. Without independence, a consensus would still emerge, but it would no longer robustly be on the best nest site; instead, many bees would end up dancing for nest sites that accidentally receive some initial support through random fluctuations. It is only when independence and interdependence are combined in the right way that the bees achieve their remarkable collective reliability.

(hat tip Paul Kedrosky)

3 Responses to The Right Mix of Independence and Interdependence for Group Decision Making

  1. A says:

    It’s a close observation of great value on teamwork…but I feel there’s one major thing that stymies it to effectively make this possible for the humans — the inability for all the team players to nearly bear the same instincts and nature (agressiveness, extrovertness, credulity et al). Maybe we humans are so conginitively smart that it backfires us in teamwork, vis-a-vis the bees.
    Would be interesting to note if the study mentions about something about wavering personal behaviours of bees too, during their mutual interactions and confrontations!

  2. A long time ago the book Micromotives and Macrobehavior talked at length about this very thing, the author won a Nobel for it a while later.

    Though i liked that book, a more interesting read would be Emergence by Steven Johnson. The Wisdom of the Crowds skirts on the issue but assumes some kind of controller or manager, not some collective intelligence that bee hives and ant hills display.

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    Yeah I’ve read Emergence and it’s good.

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