Following the leader is not such a great idea

May 13th, 2008 - 3:36 pm ICT by admin  

London, May 13 (IANS) Ever wonder why sometimes people in groups do apparently foolish things, such as standing in the street and staring skyward when there’s nothing to see, just because someone else is doing it? The answer: it’s because of our tendency to follow the leader.

But this tendency - which applies equally to fishes, animals and humans - could place the followers in danger. For instance, there is the risk of following a maverick individual into trouble.

Now a new study has found that animals are aware of this danger and have developed a simple but effective counter: in groups they go where at least a few of them have dared to tread - rather than follow an individual.

This approach reduces the risk of following an individual who might be wrong and also points to a recognition that consensus is mostly better.

“Social conformity and the desire to follow a leader exert extremely powerful influences on the behaviour of social animals,” said Ashley J.W. Ward, who led the study.

“Leadership in an animal social group may be assumed by an individual (or individuals) who exhibits a directional preference according to the habitat information it holds.”

This may be information about, for example, the location of food or a predator’s whereabouts.

In such cases, the benefits of followers acquiring this information may be significant, but whilst information is a valuable commodity, “blind copying” could result in a string of ill-informed decisions.

The team investigated how animals use the behaviour of others to make more accurate movement decisions, especially when it isn’t possible to identify which individuals possess pertinent information.

One plausible answer is that animals in groups only respond when they see a threshold number of fellow group members perform a particular behaviour.

Findings of the study have been published in the latest edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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