The Rational Ant

In a recent post I described how pigeons are better than humans at solving the Monty Hall problem and might therefore prove to be formidable competitors on Let’s Make a Deal. In this post, I have some good news and some bad news for those of you readers who are human (I make no assumptions in this blog). The good news is that I have yet to see any research showing that pigeons can triumph over humans at Jeopardy. The bad news is that the top two winners on Let’s Make a Deal could well end up being a pigeon and an ant, leaving the human contestants to go home with nothing more than an electronic version of the game (and perhaps a goat or two).

An article in ScienceNOW1 provides the backdrop:

Ants enjoying a nectar lunch on a sunny day (photo: Wikipedia)

Consider the following scenario: You want to buy a house with a big kitchen and a big yard, but there are only two homes on the market–one with a big kitchen and a small yard and the other with a small kitchen and a big yard. Studies show you’d be about 50% likely to choose either house–and either one would be a rational choice. But now, a new home comes on the market, this one with a large kitchen and no yard. This time, studies show, you’ll make an irrational decision: Even though nothing has changed with the first two houses, you’ll now favor the house with the big kitchen and small yard over the one with the small kitchen and big yard. Overall, scientists have found, people and other animals will often change their original preferences when presented with a third choice.

Not so with ants. These insects also shop for homes but not quite in the way that humans do. Solitary worker ants spread out, looking for two main features: a small entrance and a dark cavity. If an ant finds an outstanding hole–such as the inside of an acorn or a rock crevice–it recruits another scout to check it out. As more scouts like the site, the number of workers in the new hole grows. Once the crowd reaches a critical mass, the ants race back to the old nest and start carrying the queen and larvae to move the entire colony.

The article goes on to describe some research on ant decision-making conducted by Stephen Pratt, an Arizona State University behavioral ecologist, and Susan Edwards, of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. In this research, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences2, Pratt and Edwards designed a series of possible nests for 26 ant colonies:

The duo cut rectangular holes in balsa wood and covered them with glass microscope slides. The researchers then drilled holes of various sizes into the glass slides and slipped plastic light filters under the glass to vary the features ants care about most. At first, the colonies only had two options, A and B. A was dark but had a large opening, whereas B was bright with a small opening. As with humans, the ants preferred both options equally: The researchers found no difference between the number of colonies that picked A versus B.

Then the scientists added a third option, called a decoy, that was similar to either A or B in one characteristic but clearly worse than both in the other (a very bright nest with a small opening, for example). Unlike humans, the ants were not tricked by the decoy, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Although a few colonies picked the third nest, the other colonies did not start favoring A or B and still split evenly between the two.

Ants can make better decisions because they take advantage of collective wisdom and do not “overthink” their options the way humans are prone to do. As Pratt noted in an article published in PhysOrg.com3, “Typically we think having many individual options, strategies and approaches are beneficial, but irrational errors are more likely to arise when individuals make direct comparisons among options.”

This research is particularly fascinating in that it poses a direct challenge to our core belief that we will always enjoy a large advantage over other animals when there is an intellectual way to solve a problem: sure, animals may have highly-evolved senses of smell, they may be fast, they may have impressive reflexes and their instincts may be powerful, but where we humans are able to harness our large brains, we will inevitably prevail.

In fact, though, we should hold off before patting ourselves on the back. As this (and other) research shows, we suffer from biases and flaws in the way we approach thought problems that can lead to irrational decisions and that can even put us at a disadvantage vis-à-vis other animals, including the birds and the ants.

Something to think about.


1ScienceNOW, “Can’t Decide? Ask an Ant,” July 22, 2009.

2Edwards SC, Pratt SC. Rationality in collective decision-making by ant colonies. Proc Biol Sci. 2009 October 22; 276(1673): 3655–3661, published online 2009 July 22 (doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.0981)., “Ants more rational than humans,” July 24, 2009.

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