Psychology of a superorganism

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For over a century, researchers have been investigating collective cognition, in which a group of individuals together process information and act as a single cognitive unit. However, I still know

For over a century, researchers have been investigating collective cognition, in which a group of individuals together process information and act as a single cognitive unit. However, I still know little about circumstances under which groups achieve better (or worse) decisions than individuals. My dissertation research directly addressed this longstanding question, using the house-hunting ant Temnothorax rugatulus as a model system. Here I applied concepts and methods developed in psychology not only to individuals but also to colonies in order to investigate differences of their cognitive abilities. This approach is inspired by the superorganism concept, which sees a tightly integrated insect society as the analog of a single organism. I combined experimental manipulations and models to elucidate the emergent processes of collective cognition. My studies show that groups can achieve superior cognition by sharing the burden of option assessment among members and by integrating information from members using positive feedback. However, the same positive feedback can lock the group into a suboptimal choice in certain circumstances. Although ants are obligately social, my results show that they can be isolated and individually tested on cognitive tasks. In the future, this novel approach will help the field of animal behavior move towards better understanding of collective cognition.