Most people think before making decisions. As it turns out, so do bees. In the journal 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:
"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."
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