Decisions, Decisions – from Ants to Humans-

In this blog I have tried to demonstrate one way that scientific research can enable us to consider how our families and other social system function.

Traveling along the road of life even ants know when it pays to make decisions as an individual, and when it pays to follow the signals from the group.

isa and tree walk

When you see streams of ants at a picnic they may be uninvited but they stream in as though they know exactly what to do.  They display the fine coordination of the group mind. There is no individual standing up to say, “Follow me”, or “Retreat, these people have anti-ant spray in the wicker basket!”

The group mindset of the ant may resemble fans watching an athletic competition. All eyes are on the players and the crowd responds.  They are not thinking for self.  In the sports world, team building is up to the coaches and that often works out well.

However this group mindset is also present in families, where people are afraid to differ or are always differing from the rest of the family. When we humans are surrounded by influential others it becomes more and more difficult to make decisions for self that is different from the “political correctness” of the group.  What are the circumstances that promote greater ability to make decisions for one’s self in ants and humans?

The usefulness of individuals who can define self to others may differ from one circumstance to another but the importance of individual decision-making appears across many species including ants and bees.

Social systems seem to promote a great deal of groupthink.  That is, we have eyes and so it is easy to look and see what others want or need, and under anxious conditions to either 1) just do  and give in, 2) react like hell and get mad, or 3) get sick or get distant (literally and figuratively) from the needs of others.   “What are the others doing?  OK, that tells me what I should do (depending on my wiring to react or to be more of a Self).”

In the extreme, this kind of dependency on others’ behavior, forcing the other to behave correctly, leads to con-fusion and the ongoing inability to take responsibility for self. For ants it just comes down to making poorer decisions.

However we also have evidence that there are times when making decisions by one ant all alone, far from the pressure of the crowd, has a pay off for the group.  Perhaps this evolutionary trait, decision-making based on one’s ability to “see” the environment more as a single individual, is one of the basic components of differentiation of self.

Much of the time ants are influenced by what the other ants are up to.   See the Ted talk by Deborah Gordon on “The Emergent Genius of Ant Colonies”. 

“By studying how ant colonies work without any one leader, Deborah Gordon has identified striking similarities in how ant colonies, brains, cells and computer networks regulate themselves.”

We are not like exactly like ants because we can (with an effort) observe ourselves and communicate to one another after reflecting on the state of the relationship system.  But like insects, we too are sensitive to what the other members of our family and social communities want from us and direct us to do. We too are often guided by information generated by the relationships system. 

Think about making decisions against doctor’s orders if you happen to be in the emergency room far away from family and friends. Consider trying to buy a car? How about getting married when the in-laws do not seem to like you? These are familiar experiences for me and you can name your own.

Perhaps the lowly ants are the best at using information from others to make decisions that enable the whole colony to adapt. They rely on chemical messages.   No words that might be interpreted the wrong way will emerge from the ant.

Unlike ants, humans have the ability to communicate about the macro view of the system.  In order to communicate a “different” viewpoint to others who may be following ancient habits of communication, a human has to be somewhat “immune” to the signals from others.  If a single individual opposes or interrupts the state of the social system, they are likely to be stung by the system.

Ants and some humans live in a hypersensitive, stimulus-response world. Here sensitivity rules. The more sensitive an individual is, the more one reacts to what others say and do, and the less opportunity the individual has to make a decision based on thinking well for self. 

How would it be if humans became more aware of their sensitivity to others and enhanced the ability to think for self and communicate about the state of the system to others? Yes, there are those who can observe the relationship system and even take the bold move of commenting on the way the relationships are going.

There is a push and pull among people.  Like ants we can join coalitions and march forward with those who believe as we do, or those we need, or those who frighten us.

The question is how does one become aware of the communication that is flowing around one’s self and learn to distill the information and to communicate in a way that promotes a bit more autonomy.

As individuals observe the state of the system, a few can describe it to others without stirring up reactivity and opposition.  This is a skill that Dr. Bowen demonstrated in his book Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, (1982) in the chapter: “On the Differentiation of Self”, pages 467 – 528.

Now we have evidence, from ants no less, that being a lone observer who is a more separate individual from others in the social jungle can lead to better decision-making.  But it is still a leap for humans to note how the relationship system is acting to pressure us for better or worse.

When it comes to making decisions, bees and ants can act against stereotype says Robert M. Sapolsky in the September 19, 2014 issue of the WSJ.   (I added bold to highlight a few ideas I thought were particularly worth noting.)

Social insects excel at what we’ve come to call the “wisdom of the crowd,” in which a group of moderately informed individuals is more accurate than a lone “expert.”

Suppose two bees each discover a different food source. As research beginning almost a century ago has shown, each bee then returns to the hive and “dances,” communicating the direction and distance of the food; when a bee in the hive encounters a dancer, she investigates that source. How does the hive figure out which is the better resource?

Suppose site B has twice the food as site A, and as a result, the scout from that source dances for twice as long. The other bees in the hive will encounter the site B scout dancer twice as often as the other bee; soon, twice as many bees investigate and return from site B as from site A, and they dance for twice as long, too. This results in four times as many bees checking out B than A, then eight times as many, then…everyone. No bee investigates both sites, yet the better site is chosen.

Work by Takao Sasaki and Stephen Pratt of Arizona State University and colleagues, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explores something similar in ants. Given two nests, how does an ant colony determine which is preferable (in this case, which has a darker interior)? 

A scout returns, and the better the nest, the sooner she leads a second ant to it, causing that exponential shift of colony preference for that site. Ants sometimes move randomly, so this system can amplify a wrong choice; still, it works much better than chance.

To test the limits of this method, the authors had groups of ants and single ants pick nests. The choice was either easy (major lighting differences between the two nests) or difficult (subtler distinctions).

For difficult comparisons, ant groups were more effective than singletons in selecting the best nest in a set time. But critically, for easy tasks, it was the other way around. For one thing, by the time a lone ant had made the obvious choice, the group was still forming subcommittees to write the Environmental Impact Statement. And for easy choices, a single ant is likely to be more accurate, since it isn’t vulnerable to random fluctuations amplifying the wrong choice.

Ants are a well-coordinated group.  They adapt by paying attention to signals. But even ants realize that communication signals can be “noisy’ or wrong. The colony is wired to benefit from a single ant making a decision (for self and for the colony).

Ants do not define a self in important relationships.  We humans have the ability to be more separate in relationship systems and to reorganize our response to the social group. 

Yet, understanding how other social systems function gives us a deeper understanding of circumstances surrounding decisions made for self and when and how one might “choose” to go along with the group’s decisions.

The goal of this effort to notice social pressure is that individuals will become more aware, objective and self defined thereby creating greater autonomy or even greater wisdom in the social system.

During harsh conditions, or even chaotic times, the ability of a lone ant or a lone human to make good decisions, allows these “leaders” to give accurate and more understandable feedback to the group and this can redirect the behavior within the social system.

Humans, like ants, are wired for herd behavior and can be manipulated by emotions.  The importance of problem solving and decision-making is crucial to survival and can be found in ants and bees, organisms millions of years old. We can certainly learn from these insects about the importance of individual decision-making and autonomy in communication and problem solving.

We have the ability to understand just how sensitivity functions in reactivity (obedience or rebellion).  We can learn what it takes to manage self by seeing the social forces pressuring others, and us and take action as a more mindful self.

The complex and messy communication styles of humans

Clearly humans have trouble untangling the message when communication gets anxious and intense.  The following are two letters from my brother reflecting back on his childhood. I thought they were informative as to the challenge of seeing and understanding social pressure.  There are a few questions to think about after the letters.

Other Focused Confusion 

When we were children my parents and even grandparent’s made me eat foods that we didn’t like: “Just try one spoonful, you’ll like it…. “ Ad nausea! The food might change but the thought or lack of process is the same “eat your carrots Megan…. Umm good, mommy likes them.”

Of course she wouldn’t make you eat your peas like her narrow-minded mom did. Why would we somehow feel vindicated if our child likes what we like?  Is this what makes us right? 

Has any mother, grand or great grandmother stopped to consider that Christopher Columbus went to find the east rounding the corners of our square earth, while mothers were still coaxing and coercing veggies down reluctant pallets. Unless you’re an Eskimo mother and your child doesn’t like seafood, then relax; treat your children the way you want to be treated as a child.

Creative Procrastination

The act of waiting till the last minute always being late or barely on time are not sinful. However if the one about coveting your neighbor’s wife had been replaced with  “they shall not dillydally,” I would be headed straight down the heated highway.

After being respect fully late for National Guard meetings, my sergeant had some questions – he growled, “I don’t get it, if the meeting is at 6 o’clock you get here at 6:15 if it’s at 7:00 you arrive at 7:15. It is the same; you are always 15 minutes late.  I just don’t get it. ” Shrugging my shoulders I honestly reply, “I don’t get it either, Sarge. “

  • Would it be useful to know more about what goes into sensitivity to others?
  • Would it be useful to know the circumstances under which a nuclear family becomes so intense that the suggestion of what food to eat becomes a threat?
  • Does an individual need a more neutral view of the family from someone outside it, to see the pressure put on him to conform?
  • How do people get over this pressure from the family to “do and be” for others?

If you took a detailed family history you would find evidence of the nuclear family intensity increasing as our parents were struggling after World War II and became more distant from the extended family.  Finding comfort in focusing on and making children more obedient, when the world around you is disintegrating, is a great anxiety binder.

Can seeing how ants function enable us to see both the tendency to be influenced by the crowd around us and how making a decision for self can enable us to adapt to changing conditions?  Should I be guided by listening to you (whoever you are) or make up my own mind and stand-alone?

My thesis is that to see the pressure applied in a relationship system, one has to observe the state of the system. This requires being motivated to enter a discipline – becoming more neutral about what one sees, and to communicate well with others.  This is a very handy skill to have, enabling the ability to decrease spiraling anxiety.

Increasing awareness may part of the trajectory of evolutionary forces that have been developed since the beginning of life on earth and we humans are benefiting from riding on the forward thrust of increasing awareness.


Thanks for reading



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