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How working like bees can improve our decision making

by Jordan Odell

When you hear two words together you immediately recognise the semiotics behind them. For example, thunder and lightening, pen and paper, or dads and terrible dancing. Two words that you may never have imagined together are honeybee’s and the brain. Or more specifically the cognitive deliberations of our own minds, and the collective intelligence of honeybees when it comes to decision making. Though they have plenty of similarites, which draw interesting parallels when exploring decision making in small groups.

In 2010, biologist Thomas D. Seeley published The Honeybee democracy, a book covering the core principles of decision making in group settings, specifically in reference to the inner workings of a bee hive in correlation to the human mind. This was explored by comparing the fundamental techniques of honeybee hives which exercise a collective intelligence, very similarly to the cognitive deliberations of our own brains when working towards a shared interest.

Like many other biologists, Seeley saw the mechanism of a bee colony not as individuals, but rather a collection of individuals as a sort of superorganism, working towards a common goal. In two separate studies, sociobiologists analysed the behavioural decision making by groups of insects, whereas neurobiologists investigated the neuronal basis of decision making in primate brains. Both studies found interesting parallels between them, suggesting that there are general principals of organisation for building groups that are far more intelligent than the smartest individual in them.

“It turns out there are intriguing similarities in the pictures that have emerged from these two independent lines of study. For example, the studies of individual neuron activity associated with the eye-movement decisions in monkey brains and the studies of individual bee activity associated with nest-site decisions in honeybee swarms have both found that the decision-making process is essentially a competition between alternatives to accumulate support (e.g., neuron firings and bee visits), and the alternative that is chosen is the one whose accumulation of support first surpasses a critical threshold.”

–  Thomas D. Seeley The Honeybee Democracy (2010)

The relationships these insects have is an interesting way to shed new light on how we can work together. Honeybees are highly intelligent as a group, managing to communicate amongst themselves to reach a common target. Seeley found many common elements in their decision making process and our own, suggesting that working collectively we can produce ideas that are more intelligent than any one individual can imagine.

Seeley finalises the discussion at the end of the book offering “Five Habits of Effective Group”, the principles he uses as head of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University, which can also be applied to Workshops.

The five lessons for group decision – making are:

  • Create groups with mutual respect and shared interest
  • Minimize the leader’s influence on the group thinking
  • Seek diverse solutions
  • Aggregate the group’s knowledge through debate
  • Use quorum responses for speed, cohesion, and accuracy

These principles suggested by Seeley can be moulded into the aims of our Workshops, as they work well in small groups with a shared common interest, so they can be applied to achieve the highest quality decisions throughout a team in order to increase intelligence and work flow.