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Watch: The way a school of fish behaves can explain decisions taken by groups of people (like mobs)

The study also explains why individual ignorance is good for group decisions.


Collective behaviour is endemic to most animal species on the planet. It is visible not only in schools of fish, herds of animals, and swarms of insects, but also in gatherings of human beings.

Iain Couzin and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology at the University of Konstanz in Germany have spent years developing new observation techniques and technologies to study the collective behaviour in fish.

The film (above) by Spine Films reveals how individual fish communicate with one another and influence the behaviour of a collective, as they respond to external stimuli and simultaneously interact and control the collective movement. To the naked eye, their lightning-speed movements are a blur. Now, high-speed video, monitor-tracking software and advanced statistical modelling are shedding light on the movements and interaction within the collective.

Schools of fish have to face many challenges in their unpredictable environment that require them to take in complex information and respond collectively and quickly. The most interesting thing discovered in the study was that ignorance or being uninformed could be very positive, as “having uninformed individuals participating in the decision-making democratises the group decision making and prevents having extremist individuals from having disproportionate influence,” as Couzin puts it.

In human societies, the same information – including misinformation – is conveyed to multiple individuals through media and broadcasting, which diminishes their capacity for collective intelligence. “Collective intelligence relies on the individual components to gather evidence themselves towards the problem, not be told what to think,” he says, adding that human society relies heavily on opinion and correlated information.

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