19 June 2008

The Flight of the BumbleBees … Are we too far behind them?

Decision-Making, Risk-Taking Similar in Bees and Humans

Most people think before making decisions. As it turns out, so do bees.

In this week's issue of Nature, Israeli researchers show that when making decisions, people and bees alike are more likely to gamble on risky courses of action - rather than taking a safer option - when the differences between the various possible outcomes are easily distinguishable. When the outcomes are difficult to discern, however, both groups are far more likely to select the safer option - even if the actual probabilities of success have not changed.

The findings by researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University help shed light on why people are inclined to choose certainty when differences between potential outcomes - such as paybacks when gambling or returns on financial investments - are difficult to discern.

In tests with 50 college students, subjects chose between two unmarked computer buttons. Pushing one of the buttons resulted in a payoff of 3 credits with 100% certainty, while pushing the other led to a payoff of 4 credits with an 80% certainty - though participants only learned these payoffs through trial and error as they flashed on screen. Test subjects were required to make 400 such decisions each, and tended to choose the risky strategy when payoffs were represented as simple numbers (i.e. "3 credits" and "4 credits"). The results were similar when the numerals 3 and 4 were replaced with easily distinguishable clouds of 30 and 60 dots. But when the numerals were replaced with clouds of 30 or 40 dots - making it much more difficult to distinguish between the two - subjects veered towards the more certain outcome.

The researchers subjected honeybees to similar trials, using the bees' sense of smell and 2 µl drops of sugar solution payoffs of varying concentrations. The researchers first tested the bees with payoffs for risky and safe alternatives at 10% and 5% sugar concentrations, respectively. In a second experiment, the payoffs were a less-easy-to-discriminate-between 6.7% and 5%, and in a third experiment, the payoff in both alternatives was 6.7%. Bees were required to make 32 such decisions, and were given a choice between two smells, each presented twice for one-second each, in an alternating sequence. The bees tended towards the risky strategy only when their choice was easily discernable, paralleling their human counterparts.

According to Professor Ido Erev of the Technion Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management, some practical implications of this research can be seen in an analysis of the values placed on rule enforcement in the workplace. The results, he said, suggest that: (1) consistent and constant rule enforcement is necessary, since workers are more likely to ignore risks - if they have done so before without punishment; (2) workers are likely to be supportive of enforcement, since they initially plan to obey many of the rules (wearing safety goggles, for instance) they end up violating; and (3) severe penalties that are not always enforced are not likely to be effective, but gentle, consistently enforced rewards and punishments can be.

"The similar responses by humans and bees demonstrates that this decision-making process happens very early in evolution," said Erev. "The results suggest that this is a very basic phenomenon shared by many different animals."

The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is Israel's leading science and technology university. Home to the country's winners of the Nobel Prize in science, it commands a worldwide reputation for its pioneering work in nanotechnology, computer science, biotechnology, water-resource management, materials engineering, aerospace and medicine. The majority of the founders and managers of Israel's high-tech companies are alumni. Based in New York City, the American Technion Society (ATS) is the leading American organization supporting higher education in Israel, with 22 offices around the country.
Contact: Kevin Hattori (212) 407-6319

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