Scientists at Arizona State University have discovered that ants utilize a strategy to handle “information overload.” Temnothorax rugatulus ants, commonly found living in rock crevices in the Southwest, place the burden of making complicated decisions on the backs of the entire colony, rather than on an individual ant.
A study published in the early, online version of scientific journal Current Biology, suggest that the key to preventing cognitive overload is found in collective decision-making, rather than in multi-tasking.
“I think the reason people are interested in this is because as humans, we can become overloaded with information—and that can possibly be detrimental both to our health and to how effectively we make decisions,” Pratt said. “There’s a sense that as a society, we are being more and more overwhelmed by information.”
Previous research has shown that ant colonies have the ability to compare the quality of two potential nest sites—even if no single ant visits both sites. Pratt and Sasaki hypothesized that a colony could choose a high-quality nest from many more options more effectively than individual ants, because each member of the colony assesses only a small part of portion of available sites, and then shares the information with the entire colony.
“People usually think of ants as sort of stupid, that they can’t really compare options, or that they don’t have good cognition,” said Sasaki. “But actually, individual ants can compare options, and that’s why they too experience cognitive overload—a well-documented phenomenon in human beings.”
The pair designed experiments with artificial nest sites to evaluate the ants’ decision-making abilities. Both colonies and individual ants were given two levels of tasks. Ants had to choose between two nests, or they had to choose among eight nests. In both experiments, half the nests were unsuitable. Nests are frequently chosen based on entrance and cavity size, as well as darkness and other features.
Researchers discovered that individual ants made much worse decisions when faced with eight options rather than two, meaning that they experienced cognitive overload. Colonies, on the other hand, did equally well with either two or eight options, showing that they could handle the harder problem as a collective. Via Ants share decision-making, lessen vulnerability to ‘information overload’.