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ASU ant research sheds light on psychology of decision-making

By

Juno Schaser

An Arizona State University behavioral ecologist’s research became national news this week when Los Angeles Times writer Melissa Pandika covered the findings of Stephen Pratt’s latest study.

Pratt, an associate professor in the ASU School of Life Sciences, worked alongside ASU post-doctoral research assistant Takao Sasaki, as well as three other scientists from Uppsala University in Sweden.

In the article, titled “Ants make tough choices better when working in groups, study says,” Pandika writes, “Our society often touts teamwork, but when faced with an easy task, groups may actually perform worse than individuals – at least when the group is made up of Temnothorax rugatulus ants.”

When faced with a decision between two nesting sites, a group of ants performed better if the sites were relatively equal – making it a tougher choice between the two. “When the difference between the nests was obvious, however, the ‘group advantage’ disappeared and colonies were more likely to choose the inferior site,” writes Pandika.

This research was unique, as Pratt explained, because “[e]arlier studies on collective decision making hadn’t compared group with individual performance.”

The study doesn’t just pertain to insects, according to the researchers: “Some ‘general comparisons’ can be made between decision-making in ants and other social species, including humans,” Pratt said. However, there is still much more research to be done. “Humans tend to be more heavily influenced by social information, so their interactions are often much more complex.”

Pratt will continue to work with social dynamic research and is collaborating with University of Pennsylvania engineers to create ant-like groups of robots that could be programmed to solve similar problems.