Why bees don’t make stupid decisions, but people do
When we observe financial meltdowns or environmental debacles, often behind each were people who exercised very poor judgment. What’s more, step back from the decisions that were made and it is easy to conclude that the decisions were suspect from the start and should have been called out at the time options were being considered. Since bees can’t afford to be wrong (since it may cost them their lives), they protect themselves against decisions that can spiral out of control in wrong-headed directions. They do this in a number of ways.
Briefly, bees avoid going off course by listening to what other bees have to say; exploring contrary facts; changing their minds when better alternatives appear; and making judgments for themselves without the undue influence of others. When bees advertise an unlikely spot to find nectar, what do the other bees do? They check the place out. Some researchers think that bees lack certain cognitive-perceptual abilities that prevent them from visiting implausible locations, but another, equally likely explanation is that bees have no reason to suspect their sisters of deceiving them. Given that all members of the hive want the same things, when a bee is advocating for something that will potentially help the colony, why not listen?
Additionally, honeybees do not prematurely close off discourse when presented with facts in opposition to their recent experiences. For example, after the bees have fully exploited the nectar of a flower patch, they abandon the patch, checking back periodically to make sure that circumstances have not changed. Later, however, they may observe a scout bee directing them back to the very place that they have previously abandoned. Still, the bees do not gaze incredulously at the scout as if to suggest, “We’ve been to that spot, and there is nothing there,” the organizational equivalent to, “We’ve tried that before, and it doesn’t work.” What do they do instead? They visit the site to see for themselves, knowing that their prior assessment may no longer apply.
Bees also give up on their initial positions and yield to other, better alternatives. This ability is most striking during the bees’ swarming process. When hives get too large in numbers, they divest themselves of little less than half their members. The swarm then sends out a couple hundred scout bees to search for a new home. Most scouts return to the swarm without having found a site that satisfies minimum requirements. A dozen or so return with good news. This news is expressed through the bees’ dance language. The higher the quality of the site, the more enthusiastic the dance. The ultimate purpose of this dance is to recruit uncommitted scouts to the targeted site for a showing. Scout bees repeatedly return to their chosen sites for additional assessments, but their enthusiasm for each site declines at a relatively fixed rate with each visit. This means that bees’ attraction to lower-quality hives extinguishes first, creating the opportunity for them to find and settle on higher-quality spots. In effect, bees may abandon their initial positions and “reset” their commitment levels as they become open to new possibilities. What is most illustrative of this decision process is the trust placed in the independent assessments of evaluators. This independence prevents bad decisions from proliferating. A decision is finalized only after every bee with something to say (communicate) has said it, and the other bees have individually made their choices. The result? Bees find a new home that won’t be the death of them.
How do we apply this in research or online panels and research communities? Well, by merely having a research panel or community an organisation is already tapping into the ‘hive consensus’ and learning from their customers. By listening to the ‘buzz’ they are making enables the marketer to make more informed decisions, which is an effective way to keep bad decisions in check!
This is an extract from an article in Psychology Today by Michael O’Malley, who is a social psychologist and best-selling author of The Wisdom of the Bees.