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Collective Intelligence: A steady stream of visitors learn about Decision-making research at the Festival of Nature

16 June 2014

A steady stream of visitors learnt all about 'Collective Intelligence' at the Festival of Nature this weekend (13-15 June 2014) as they visited the University of Bristol tent. Rebecca Floyd from the Decision-making Group along with colleagues from Biological Sciences were on hand to show people how groups of organisms, from ants to humans, make decisions. Results of the experiments undertaken along with prize winners can be found at http://www.bristol.ac.uk/decisions-research/FestivalofNature.

The glorious June weather brought plenty of visitors down to the Harbour side and the Festival of Nature during the weekend, with a steady stream of visitors to the ‘Collective Intelligence’ stand in the University of Bristol tent.  Youngsters were particularly drawn to the three adorable potential prizes and the intriguing perspex trays on display.

Although entitled 'Collective Intelligence', the aim of the stand was to show people how groups of organisms make decisions, from ants to humans, as well as try to gather a little experimental data. Tom O'Shea, a PhD student from Biological Sciences brought along some of the rock ants he has been using in his research into nest site decision making in the species. A fun game of Ant Nest Top Trumps had also been devised to show visitors some of the criteria that the ants use in evaluating a potential nest site. The perspex trays held visible demonstrations of the behaviour in action as the conditions of one nest were repeatedly altered to make it less favourable than an alternative nearby, then watched as they explored the new nest, before deciding as a collective to move the entire colony to the new location.

With the possibility of so many visitors, temptation could not be resisted to run a couple of fun experiments too. In a collaboration between Christos Ioannou of Biological Sciences and Rebecca Floyd from the Decision-making Group in Experimental Psychology, two studies were devised that explore how humans use information from others in making decisions. One study probed whether people make optimal choices about sources of information when deciding the answer to a question. The other experiment was a variation of Galton's 1907 study in which he found that the aggregated answers from a large group of individuals is close to the actual answer. In this case, rather than guessing the weight of an ox, visitors had to guess the combined weight of three cuddly chimps. They were then shown the previous four participant estimates and asked if they would like to revise their guess. Very few participants did, which was a surprise – there was the expectation that those whose answer was very different to the previous four would adjust their response accordingly. The data are still to be fully analysed, but results will be posted on-line along with answers to the questions posed and further information, see http://www.bristol.ac.uk/decisions-research/FestivalofNature