Arguing Makes For Better Decision-Making, Meerkat Study Proves

meerkats2Conflicting interests within a group can improve collective decisions, according to a joint-study by the London School of Economics and Social Policy (LSE), UK and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin.

Published in the journal The American Naturalist, the study shows that instead of confusing the group and slowing down decision-making, conflict within a group can make for better group decisions.

The effectiveness of a squabbling group is dependent on other factors. The individuals in conflict must share the same overall aim of the group for the squabbling to be effective conflict, rather than ineffective disagreement.

Examples of common group goals improved by small-scale conflict include:

  • searching for food
  • finding a place to rest or shelter
  • seeking a safe place to sleep
  • avoiding becoming prey

A decision-making model was developed by the research team which showed that when individuals in a group have slightly different small-scale goals, they are less likely to make the same mistake as another group would predicted by chance.

Small-scale contrasting goals are often seen in groups when animals try to optimize a group decision for personal gain. If the personal gain is not completely opposed to the group goal, the conflict that arises can be a positive. Conflict therefore serves to improve the groups achievement of its aim, rather than hamper it.

Dr Christian List, Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at the LSE, comments on the findings:

Collective decisions in groups where there are lots of minor disagreements actually offset errors made by individuals. Counter-intuitively, this means that the ‘quality’ of a decision for a group as a whole may improve with the number of differing decision-makers within it – although this plateaus at a certain number of animals.”

The example given to demonstrate the positive nature of conflict can be seen in the group choice of land. In two given patches, one suitable for food and the other unsuitable, a group with contrasting personal goals is much more likely to choose the patch that is suitable for food than the group with goals that are completely compatible. Effectively, all members of the group benefit from diversity and the consequential conflict, as long as the conflict remains relatively small-scale.

Despite disagreements, decisions are still made by the group and the group continues. It is always in the interests of a group to avoid permanently splitting, or dividing.

Studies of animal group behavior or ‘swarm intelligence’ have tended to not concentrate on the consequence of conflict within a group. This research is the first to study the nature of group conflict, and its positive function.

Examples of  conflicting goals within the group include:

  • vulnerable animals preferring a safer migration route
  • larger animals opting for a shorter migration one
  • smaller animals choosing a food patch with higher forage quality
  • larger animals favouring a patch with a higher quantity of food

The disagreement that arises by negotiating contrasting desired outcomes improves the quality of group decision making as a whole. The study showed that without an element of conflict, decisions were not just not as effective but were ‘surprisingly poor.’

The findings of the study into group behavior, when applied to humans, demonstrate that involving the interests of all members of a group in decision-making – from the most dominant to the most vulnerable, is essential for the group success and avoiding the pitfalls of error.

Co-author Dr Larissa Conradt comments:

Our results showed that shared decisions, made by animals without conflict, were often surprisingly poor. It’s possible that this could be applicable to human collective decision making and provides a strong argument for not excluding different or minority factions from collective decisions.”

Equality and diversity, therefore, is officially in everyone’s interests.


LSE Press Release: Squabbling meerkats make better decisions

The American Naturalist: Swarm Intelligence: When Uncertainty Meets Conflict

Image credit: with thanks to Tacluda of RGB Freestock