What do Donald Trump and a bee hive have in common?

While this might sound like the setup to a bad joke or bit of political punditry, it’s an important and meaningful academic question. To a collective behavior scientist, electing a president or choosing a new nest site are both choices that arise from the interactions of a large number of individuals.

WIRED OPINION

About

Joe Bak-Coleman (@jbakcoleman) is a Ph.D. candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, where he is studying collective behavior.


When bees need to find a new nest site, scouts will visit several potential locations. When they return, if they like the site they dance excitedly in a way that tells others where it is located. This dancing may recruit more scouts to check out the site, who likewise visit the site and start dancing to express support for the location. Bees will butt heads with dancers advocating for an opposing location. Through these interactions, they eventually settle on a nest site, often a very good one. The amazing thing is that this process allows a hive to measure the relative quality of nest sites, without any single bee knowing which is best.

It’s not hard to draw parallels between selecting a nest and selecting a president. We each have a candidate we support, often without full information about the variety of options, and we still excitedly post to Facebook. Our goal is to recruit others to in turn support our candidate and spread our beliefs.

On face value, this is encouraging. If bees can find the best nest, can’t we find the best presidential candidate? Indeed, animal groups often make extraordinary collective decisions that go far beyond the abilities of any single individual. The idea that groups can make collective decisions more successfully than individuals is known as the “wisdom of the crowd” and is arguably why we vote, have juries, and fill boardrooms.

Unfortunately, the power of collective decision-making is fickle. For instance, if individuals are wrong on average, their collective decision-making processes select the worse of two options. In complex environments with multiple sources of information, sometimes small groups are better than large ones. Even individuals with no preference whatsoever can have striking impacts on the group-level decisions. These are just some of the myriad of ways in which the wisdom of the crowd isn’t so straightforward.

Imagine for a moment, that exactly half of the bees see dances for one site, and half for another. Without crucial interaction between both sides, since they’re split evenly they risk becoming deadlocked. If they are forced to decide, their selection would likely be random, even if the original quality difference was massive.

Could the same thing happen with elections? It’s well known that companies like Google and Facebook measure the political leanings of their users, something that makes financial sense. But what do they do with this data? Even seemingly benign decisions could have disastrous collective consequences.

Centering is arguably one of the more commonplace and generally innocuous data science procedures. It involves removing the average from your data so that it is split evenly around zero. Many machine-learning algorithms, such as those that are likely used by Facebook and Google, rely on centered data and behave poorly without it. A reasonable data scientist might apply centering to political leanings, particularly in a bipartisan society. But what happens if they then use this centered metric to preferentially display news stories?

Going back to our honeybee example, this practice is effectively the same as dividing the hive evenly into two groups and only showing either side one option. It’s possible that such a simple, reasonable data science decision could push the system toward evenly split political beliefs. Beyond simply creating an echo chamber, this would explicitly remove all leaning of the system toward a better option, making election results effectively random. A line of code could shift an electorate.

Unfortunately, most social media sites aren’t open source, so it’s impossible to know what decisions they’ve made. Centering, echo chambers, and fake news represent only a few of many plausible ways in which social media might have meaningful and unexpected consequences. The notion that social media has no measurable impact on elections is beyond far-fetched. The elephant in the room is whether or not they make for better, worse, or simply more random collective choices. Where are they taking us?

What is alarming is that we simply have no idea. Tackling these types of questions is at the heart of the quickly growing field of collective behavior. Scientists are developing tools and mathematical models to make sense of the very complex data inherent to these systems. Whether or not we solve global warming, reduce human suffering, and avoid nuclear war are all ultimately questions about collective behavior. The importance of understanding how we make decisions, and how these decisions are shaped by technology, is difficult to overstate.

One of the more beautiful and haunting collective phenomena is that of ant mills, or “death spirals.” When separated from the trail, large groups of army ants occasionally begin to march in a circle until they die of starvation, each dutifully following the pheromone trails of the ants laid out ahead of them. The simple rules that they’ve evolved to follow, which generally lead to astonishing feats of collective behavior, can ultimately doom them under the wrong circumstances.

Today, it’s not clear if social media is pushing humanity into a death spiral or pulling us out of one. Understanding how technology shapes human collective behavior is a very hard scientific problem. Swarms, flocks and schools provide valuable insight into how individual decisions lead to group action. It has never been more important to understand what humans and bees have in common.

25 Comments

  1. He clearly made you upset…

  2. Steve SanFrancisco

    @Mark Nohner,

    On the other hand you could just relabel the “unemployment rate”. Call it the “unemployed but still trying hard to get a job rate”. I guess it’s more useful to business to know the “unemployed but still trying rate” because it helps business determine how low they can offer prices based on how many people are still trying for their job. Business doesn’t care about the people who have given up when pricing their job openings competitively for the lowest price best candidates because the people who have given up don’t increase their supply of labor and don’t lower the equilibrium price of labor in the economics graphs.

    Society stability and the welfare of the nation depend more on the “labor participation rate”, but wages and salary negotiations by business for labor depend more on the”unemployed, but still looking rate”. I guess each measure has it’s usefulness depending on what you care about.

  3. SouthOhioGipper

    Where school budgets are cut to the bone, parents should step in and provide some form of supplemental home schooling.

    If you rely on public school for the totality of your child’s education, you are failing as a parent

  4. You really are foolish. The funding comes from the State appropriations and voted on by the State Legislators and approved by the Governor. The poorest schools in the Nation are mostly in Red States run by the republiCONs who cut school budgets to the bone. Bond issues are mostly for building or remodeling schools not for general funding. . You helped make my point!

  5. The results speaks for itself, you fools have a conman as your leader!

  6. takkachakka

    And that’s not an issue for any of the uneducated who support the Democrats? Or would you have us believe the issue of willful ignorance ONLY applies to those aligned to the Republican Party?

  7. SouthOhioGipper

    Schools are primarily a local issue. If anyone is “making cuts” it’s your own school board. Not your boogie man version of Republicans. I see levies for increased school funding every election year and most of the time they pass. So I don’t see any “cuts”.

    Understand something. The Federal Government does not control education and only makes up a portion of education funding. Your schools are your problem. Your schools suck? That is because you have a bad tax base.

    You just want to assume we’re all uneducated hicks in the sticks. When really I think you are just some snot nosed punk in a dingy flat in Brooklyn or something.

  8. Mark Nohner

    If we got rid of lobbyists and made a meager effort to find the truth in what we hear the US (or the world for that matter) would be a lot better off. +1

  9. Mark Nohner

    ….yet here you are…….

  10. Steve SanFrancisco

    They’re counted fairly easily by subtracting the labor force participation rate from the total population. still not a perfect measurement, but better than a measurement redefined for the purpose of letting the government officials claim less unemployment which is what happened to the unemployment definition.

  11. The republiCONs have systematically made cuts to the education system and have been brainwashing people via Faux News and sadly it has taken a huge toll on the intelligence of the American public. Voters use to actually read, gather real facts, information and today they listen to snippets of lies and cons by the republiCON machine that is taking over our Nation for the 1% who actually control everything with their bribes.

  12. freewill.IS.liberty

    “Why did Donald Trump get elected ?” – by Wired

    .. because the christian democrats abandoned the democratic party after they threw Kim Davis to jail for exercising her religious conscience provided by the 1st amendment…

    if the bees can vote, a Tree-Hugger Hillary would surely win….

  13. Mark Nohner

    Those who are “now magically not counted” are not able to be counted as they are not seeking employment and their reasons, although it could be said are they are disillusioned, are too varied to assume as to why.

  14. It’s time that political sites, including this one talk about the elephant in the room. That is the reason that there is such a dramatic difference between the political left and the political right in the United States is that there is a fundamental difference in the beleif system of people on the left and people on the right. I’m talking at the most basic level here. The difference between absolutism and relativism. The difference between belief in a Natural Law basis for things like rights justice an morality and a belief based on argument from authority.
    Whenever you heard an argument for AGW based on “this is what most scientist believe” it is an argument from authority. Whenever you hear “we have the electoral college because slaves were only counted as 3/5th of a person,” it is an argument from authority because some wignut with a PhD at a liberal college has said so. Even though anyone whose read the Federalist Papers knows that’s not true.
    Any argument you hear stating that the Constitution gives people rights is an argument from authority. That authority being the democratic power of the citizenry. Natural Law attests that peoples right come from their creator and that the Constitution merely limits the abilty of government to violate those rights.
    Because people’s fundamental beliefs are so different, the actions they want the country to take, the direction they want the country to go are so fundamentally different that there is really no room for compromise. Moreover people on one side of the debate actually lack the ability to even understand the process by which people on the other side have come their support their beliefs and instead impute them with incorrect motives, motives they consider immoral.
    Hence the statement, “Conservatives believe liberals are wrong. Liberals believe Conservatives are evil.” When you opponent is evil any conceivable tactic is justifiable. Lie about them, Mock them, compare their decisions to the actions of bees, talk them about being in death spirals, because you disagree with their decisions.

  15. MidwestNorsk

    It takes a lot of commie “journalists” rowing very fast to keep a floating turd like WIRED above water.

  16. Joseph Bak Coleman

    Thanks! I didn’t see it but I’ll give it a read. Wish I knew where this was all taking us.

  17. Tamsin Woolley-Barker

    I’ve been thinking the same thing, Joe! Don’t know if you saw my article from yesterday, but we’re definitely on the same wavelength. https://biomimicry.org/askingn… Enjoy!

  18. Joseph Bak Coleman

    Hit up Google scholar. Search for work involving Iain Couzin and go from there!

  19. The electoral college means a presidential candidate requires wider support than just a few major metropolises.

    Looking at the popular vote for this election is meaningless. Trump’s team, very strategically, identified the specific states Trump needed to win in order to garner 270 electoral college votes, and identified policies that appealed to that specific electorate. How many times did he campaign in California or New York? This strategy proved to be very successful as he won states no-one expected him to in order to garner the college votes he needed.

    If the election had been based on a popular vote Trump’s campaign would have had a completely different strategy.

  20. Steve SanFrancisco

    The unemployment rate has been redefined since then and the new measurement excludes several types of people who would formerly have been called unemployed but are now magically not counted at all. Also, women entered the workforce since 50 years ago, so comparing unemployment of 50 years ago is about as useful as comparing unemployment numbers between different nations each using their own definition of unemployment. It’s possible to get meaning from unemployment data that’s 50 years old and today, but a simple false assumption that all other things remained equal is the wrong approach.

  21. Steve SanFrancisco

    better for who? and in who’s opinion? Those are not trivial questions despite your assumption that they aren’t questions at all.

  22. Steve SanFrancisco

    I agree completely, but I’m wondering where in the article are the formulae and math and links to more info.

  23. A Trump article a day drives the readership away!

  24. Mark Nohner

    The unemployment rate is now back to where it has been since post WWII. We’ve been complaining about “foreign prestige” since we began distributing world food programs back in the 50s. And political and social divides waver like a sine wave on A/C circuits. The biggest problem in our society today is perceptual mass hysteria driven by the……….(wait for a Bush moment)………The Interwebs.
    Sadly it will get worse before it gets better.

  25. Mark Nohner

    Wiki-vote would work if we actually went by popular consensus. Sadly the smaller/older states took care of that years ago. The electoral College needs to go away……
    Still I’ve been to 19 varied countries and I’d rather live here than anywhere.

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