Be like a honeybee: Conferences and collective decision-making

28 November 2013

[Editor’s note: This blog was written by William Savedoff, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. Bill draws inspiration from a book on bees to provide lessons for think tanks and conferences.]

An essential part of any Think Tank Researcher’s job is to attend conferences, to make and listen to presentations, and of course to network (a noun that has now been firmly “verbed” in the 21st century). But what are all these conferences really for? Early in my career, I thought they were about sharing knowledge; yet remarkably little can be conveyed in a 15-minute presentation or even a 1-hour lecture. I gradually began to think of conferences, instead, as opportunities to meet people, hear new ideas and establish collaborations. But lately, I’ve wondered about a different function of conferences: as a part of collective decision-making. Maybe conferences are less about individualized learning or networking and more about shifting the way people think collectively, modifying the frame through which people see their lives, their work and their roles.

In a recent book, Honeybee Democracy, Thomas Seeley gave me a metaphor for describing this. Seeley explains how honeybees split their hives and choose a new home. You don’t have to be fascinated by bees (as I am) to be intrigued by this book. The science – and the scientific method – is explained in accessible language. It is a light read but it is full of heavy thoughts – about the nature of decision-making, of scientific inquiry, of the relationship between collectives (the hive, society) and individuals (honeybees, people).

The problem Seeley has set out to understand is how honeybees decide to divide their community, seek a new home, and get there expeditiously. Honeybees do all this with extremely tiny brains, no hierarchy and no leader. The so-called “Queen bee” has no authority in a hive and makes no decisions (her main role in life is to mate and lay eggs). Instead, it appears that a small share of honeybees – a few hundred older experienced foragers out of a hive of some ten to thirty thousand – play key roles, particularly in the process of selecting a new nesting site.

When selecting a new site, these older forager bees act as scouts, debate the merits of each location, and eventually sense a quorum based on the best choice. The scouts communicate their finds by doing a “waggle dance” on the surface of the swarm which indicates the direction and distance to the nesting site in the same way that honeybees share information about good sites for nectar and pollen. It also indicates the scout’s assessment of the quality of the nesting site by how excitedly she dances and how long she maintains it. The longer a scout bee advertises a particular site, the more other scout bees will investigate it. As more scout bees individually assess the site and return with enthusiastic review, the process snowballs until less well-advertised sites lose followers and better advertised sites gain adherents. At a certain point a quorum is reached (actually involving how many scout bees are at the preferred nesting site) and a process begins to mobilize and direct the swarm to their new home.

Seeley specifically compares this process to decision-making in the neurons of primate brains, to New England Town Meetings, and to the way he has tried to run (or should I say facilitate?) decision-making in his department at Cornell University. His final chapter includes a wonderful list of ways to encourage better collective decision-making by human beings.

It was no stretch to see how this metaphor applied to conferences, summit meetings and other kinds of official gatherings. Ostensibly we’re trying to persuade one another through rational argument and debate, but maybe all we’re really doing is waggle dances? With the shift from long lectures, to bullet-pointed slides, to TED talks, to unprepared conversational debates in “Davos style,” are we actually displaying our excitement about soundbite-size ideas and seeing how many other “scout bees” will respond and adhere to a new way of thinking?

If so, it may be a good thing. The process works well for honeybees. But if that is the case, we need to pay a lot of attention to two of the elements of the decision process – independent assessment and dampened excitement – if collective human decisions are ever going to be as good as those of honeybees.

Independent assessment greatly reduces the chances of choosing a bad location. Scouts seem to make their own evaluation of a nesting site without being biased by the excitement of the honeybee from which they first learned about it. This avoids the kind of “group think” that can lead to bad decisions. We need our scouts to use objective information and have open minds.

Dampened excitement also improves collective decision-making. When scouts return from a good site, their first dance is very long and excited. Subsequently, they will dance for the site again but always with less enthusiasm. After alerting everyone to the new location, the honeybee leaves it to the other bees to amplify interest or, if they think otherwise, advertise a different site. In human terms, I might call this “humility.” Have a great idea? Share it. Be excited about it. But then, let go – especially if you’re powerful. We have far too many examples of overly enthusiastic leaders hanging on to an idea that brings entire communities or nations to ruin. Fortunately, we also have numerous examples where good ideas (the polio vaccine, universal education, non-violent resistance, human rights?) have been waggle danced by humble people and then picked up and amplified by the rest of us.

So, learn the waggle dance and welcome to the hive!