Collective Irrationality and Positive Feedback

Complexity Digest

Recent experiments on ants and slime moulds have assessed the degree to which they make rational decisions when presented with a number of alternative food sources or shelter. Ants and slime moulds are just two examples of a wide range of species and biological processes that use positive feedback mechanisms to reach decisions. Here we use a generic, experimentally validated model of positive feedback between group members to show that the probability of taking the best of options depends crucially on the strength of feedback. We show how the probability of choosing the best option can be maximized by applying an optimal feedback strength. Importantly, this optimal value depends on the number of options, so that when we change the number of options the preference of the group changes, producing apparent “irrationalities”. We thus reinterpret the idea that collectives show “rational” or “irrational” preferences as being a necessary consequence of…

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