What Could the Arizona State Legislature Learn From Ants? A lot, According to a Recent Study

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Why's it taken the Arizona Legislature several months to come up with a budget, with still nothing much on the horizon? Well, there are several reasons, and most contain expletives. But one reason is that dozens of people are trying to do thousands of different things with money that doesn't actually exist.

An Arizona State University researcher may have found a solution: ants.

Stephen Pratt, an assistant professor in ASU's School of Life Sciences, published a study last week that shows how ants are more rational decision-makers than humans, and this ultimately leads to better choices.

Pratt says ants rely on "wisdom of crowds," where individual options are minimized and the best possible decision comes collectively. And quickly.

"This paradoxical outcome is based on apparent constraint," he says. "Most individual ants know of only a single option, and the colony's collective choice self-organizes from interactions among many poorly-informed ants."

Poorly informed ants? Pratt must have spent some time at the Arizona State Capitol.


"Typically we think having many individual options, strategies and approaches are beneficial," Pratt says, "but irrational errors are more likely to arise when individuals make direct comparisons among options."

Pratt says that his "wisdom of crowds" theory could potentially apply to business strategy, and yes, even government. 

"It is hard to say. But it's at least worth entertaining the possibility that some strategic limitation on individual knowledge could improve the performance of a large and complex group that is trying to accomplish something collectively," Pratt says.

Who knows? A few more weeks of fruitless budget negotiations, and we might be willing to try anything. Are there any stipulations that say state legislators need to be human?




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