Eight ants and a Cheerio can teach us how to get a job done.
Where are we going? To successful group behavior.
Below you can see a group of longhorn crazy ants lugging a Cheerio.
But much more is happening.
At Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, when researchers studied how ants transport (relatively) large bits of food, they observed group conformity and individual leadership. As a group, sometimes ants zig or zag in the wrong direction. Then though a new ant joins the crowd and realigns them. Repeatedly they follow the same pattern. The group is off track; a new ant joins them; they adjust their trajectory; they head toward their nest. Although that new ant soon acts as confused as the others, they are saved by the arrival of yet another sister who points them in the right direction.
Successfully taking the food to the nest required a combination of group and individual behaviors. The group had the muscle while the newcomers brought the brains. As one of the researchers explained, “…In this system, the wisdom does not come from crowds. Rather, some individuals supply the ‘brains,’ and the role of the group is to amplify the ‘muscle’ power of savvy individuals so that they can actually move the load.”
Our Bottom Line: The Wisdom of Crowds
In The Wisdom of Crowds, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki says that crowds can make decisions that are more accurate than individuals. In markets, crowds accurately price sodas and broccoli and tennis lessons. Studies demonstrate that crowds’ guesses cluster around the true number of jelly beans in those huge glass jugs.
On the other hand, with ants guiding a cheerio, collective decision making will not work unless you have the brains of the newcomer taking the group in the right direction.