How democracy works in nature

With the US presidential elections fast approaching, we see what we can learn from animals when it comes to picking a leader...
24 October 2016

Interview with 

Isobel Watts, Oxford University and Marta Manser, The University of Zurich


A pigeon


With the US presidential elections fast approaching, Connie Orbach sees what we can learn from animals when it comes to picking a leader...

I want to welcome you to the first Presidential debate. The participants tonight are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Connie - Choosing a leader can be a long and complicated affair with lots of stages, rules, and traditions...

The ninety minute debate is divided into six segments, each fifteen minutes long. We'll explore three topic areas tonight: achieving prosperity, America's direction, and securing America.

Connie - And it will often involve millions of people voting on mass based on information gleamed from months of campaigns. It's far from simple but humans are not the only animals to elect leaders. So when it comes to choosing positions of power, how do we match up? I asked Marta Manser from the University of Zurich to talk me through what the animals do.

Marta - Either it is being the strongest, being the most clever, having the best knowledge but usually it's not just the easy way to become the leader. But once you are the leader it might not take much to really suppress the others and to accept you as leader. Only if you show weaknesses the other co-members might try to overhaul you and take that position.

Connie - Any why is it that within these groups they're so happy to follow one leader - why would you make that decision?

Marta - It's probably the least energetic way. If I always have to make decisions and I have to convince the other individuals to follow that decision I'll to invest quite a lot of energy. And I think also in humans, that's probably very similar as long as that's a much easier way than to invest a lot of input time and energy, we are quite happy to follow other individuals.

Connie - Animals will often choose the easiest option. If they can use less energy following someone else than making their own decisions - well... all the better. It's definitely quicker, but not particularly rigorous. Us humans would surely know that the loudest in the group isn't necessarily the best.

Marta - If you have a group of humans, of individuals, and you tell them they should just try and be in the group but you tell one of those people specific information. For example, they should go to the location in the north, that individual should then, obviously, try to lead the rest of the group and try to make their way up north. And because that individual has a specific aim, it probably behaves quite dominant; it's very determined; it's going in that direction. The rest of the other people, they don't have a goal so they just follow the most obvious determined individual. And we find that in humans, we find that in meerkats, we find that in fish so that's a very common occurrence in the animal kingdom.

Connie - So when thinking about something like a Presidential election it might be the person that shouts loudest and longest might tempt us?

Marta - Yes, well exactly.I think in elections like that it's the emotions that count and then really, if you are the most convincing by being the loudest, by behaving very obvious, a lot of people might just follow that. They might not look at what the content of that person or they might just follow the obvious signs.

Connie - Oh dear. Maybe we're not as diligent as we thought. But no worries, if recent UK politics has taught us anything - when we're unhappy with our leader we can always attempt a coup.

Jeremy Corbin has lost the confidence of eight out of ten of Labour MPs and has been hit by as many as sixty resignations from his front bench team. He looks set to face a leadership challenge but Mr Corbin says he won't betray his supporters by resigning.

Connie - And we're not alone in that either as Oxford University's Isobel Watts found out -  pigeons will form a coup of their own...

Isobel - When a leader of a pigeon flock had incorrect information, instead of the information being passed straight down the hierarchy and, therefore, the whole flock taking and incorrect route which could be very detrimental, the hierarchy was actually able to reorganise itself and, therefore, the leader bird was no longer at the front. And, therefore, it's information was no longer as key to the flock's decision making and, therefore, actually the flock were able to fly the same route as they'd flown in training without taking this incorrect information. This was quite a key result and it showed that the hierarchy, although being very stable, it's actually a flexible system and they can use this flexibility in situations where the performance of the whole flock will suffer if it was inflexible.

Connie - Desperate times call for desperate measures when they know that their leader is possibly going to cause problems for everyone they can, let's say, relegate that leader and put them further down the pecking order. And how do you send a pigeon in the wrong direction in the first place?

Isobel - We use a process called "clock shifting." And clock shifting essentially jetlags birds, so it causes them to have a faulty compass. And what you can do is basically place birds in a light type room for a few days where you can turn the lights on and off at times shifted compared to real sunrise and sunset. Therefore, you can reset their internal body clocks to become shifted and this means once they're released they'll misinterpret the Sun's position by a predictable magnitude. So this means by just clock shifting the leaders we can create birds that have incorrect navigational information compared to the rest of the flock.

Connie - What if they don't want to lose their authority - what if your pigeon wants to remain a leader can they keep control of the pack?

Isobel - It's probably unlikely because I think all the other birds want to, for example, fly right and the leader wants to fly left, the leader doesn't have much choice. Because either it flies alone or it thinks it's more important to fly as a flock, which is often the case with pigeons, and therefore I'll just follow. But, we don't exactly know the mechanism behind when the leader loses its leadership because either the leader could choose not to lead, or the followers could choose not to follow.

Connie - Well there you have it, even in politics, we're not that special. But when choosing our next leaders, let's make a pact to contain our animal instincts and try to look a little deeper.


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