2:32pm

Wed October 24, 2012
Animals

In Animal Kingdom, Voting Of A Different Sort Reigns

Originally published on Thu October 25, 2012 7:57 am

As part of NPR's coverage of this year's presidential election, All Things Considered asked three science reporters to weigh in on the race. The result is a three-part series on the science of leadership. In Part 1, Alix Spiegel looked at the personalities of American presidents.

Voters could learn some things about choosing a leader from a fish. Or a chimp. Or an elephant.

That's because the animal kingdom, despite its name, tends to operate more like a democracy, says Iain Couzin, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University.

"One common property we see in animal groups from schooling fish to flocking birds to primate groups is that they effectively vote to decide where to go and what to do," Couzin says.

When one fish heads toward a potential source of food, the other fish vote with their fins on whether to follow, he says. And this highly democratic process helps animals make decisions as a group that are better than those of any single member.

Successful animal leaders know they can't get too far ahead of their constituents, Couzin says.

"They seem to simply reconcile their own goal-oriented behavior with this tendency to align with others," he says. "Because if you don't tend to be influenced by others, you then leave the group behind, and you may get eaten by predators, or you lose the benefits of group living."

Findings like this are relevant to humans because we carry a lot of evolutionary baggage with us into the voting booth, Couzin says. And when it comes to leadership, he says, we are most like animals that live in groups and depend on cooperation to survive. And these groups tend to pick cooperative leaders.

So what about the idea that it's just the biggest or strongest animal in a group that calls the shots?

It's rarely that simple, says Mark van Vugt, an evolutionary psychologist from the VU University in Amsterdam. Take chimps, for example, he says.

"In chimpanzees, it's not necessarily the physically strongest individual who seizes the control over the group," van Vugt says. "It's usually the more cunning individual, someone who forms his coalitions well."

Animal leadership also demonstrates how groups choose different leaders for different situations, he says. Among elephants, for example, the de facto leader is usually the oldest female. But that can change, van Vugt says.

"When the group is attacked, it might be one of the dominant male members who takes control," he says. "But when it comes to knowledge problems and particularly where to find water, they then turn to the oldest female."

Some animal leaders have traits that voters might wish all human leaders had — like unfailing honesty, van Vugt says.

Honeybees are a good example, he says. Their scouts lead by finding a food source and then communicating the location to other bees through something called a waggle dance.

"The interesting thing about it is in the signaling of the scout bees, there is no deception whatsoever," van Vugt says. "They want to do what is best for the hive. And I think that is a little bit dissimilar to humans."

Or chimps, whose leaders are often accomplished liars.

One way animals and people are clearly alike is that both are capable of choosing a bad leader, says Couzin.

"It's not necessarily the most talented or intelligent individual that ends up in a leadership position," Couzin says. Unqualified animals sometimes rise to power, he says, but most of the time they don't last long.

And animals don't wait for the next election to find a replacement, Couzin says.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

With two weeks ago before the election, we are asking a simple question: what makes a good leader? We could measure the candidates based on politics and past performance. This week, though, we're taking a different view of that question through the prism of science.

NPR science correspondents Jon Hamilton often looks at things from an evolutionary point of view, and he found that American voters could learn a thing or two about picking leaders by studying fish, and or chimpanzees or elephants.

JON HAMIILTON, BYLINE: It's called the animal kingdom, but Iain Couzin of Princeton University says most animals live in something closer to a democracy.

IAIN COUZIN: One common property we see in animal groups, from schooling fish to flocking birds to primate groups, is that they effectively vote to decide where to go and what to do.

HAMIILTON: When one fish heads for a potential source of food, the other fish vote with their fins on whether to follow. Couzin says his research shows that this highly democratic process helps groups of animals make better decisions than any one member of the group could. He says it also shows that successful animal leaders know that they can't get too far ahead of their constituents.

COUZIN: They seem to simply reconcile their own goal-oriented behavior - you know, I want to move over there - with this local tendency to align with others. Because if you don't tend to be influenced by others, you then leave the group behind and you may get eaten by predators or you lose the benefits of group living.

HAMIILTON: Couzin says these sorts of findings in animals should be of interest to human leaders, because we humans carry a lot of evolutionary baggage with us into the voting booth. He says when it comes to leadership, people are especially similar to animals that live in groups and depend on cooperation to survive. And these groups tend to pick cooperative leaders.

So what about the idea that it's just the biggest or strongest animal in a group that calls the shots? Mark van Vugt, an evolutionary psychologist from the VU University in Amsterdam, says it's rarely that simple. Take chimps, for example.

MARK VAN VUGT: In chimpanzees it's not necessarily the physically strongest individual who seizes the control over the group, who becomes the alpha, it's usually the more cunning individual; someone who forms his coalitions well and picks a partner who, together with him, they can overthrow the alpha.

HAMIILTON: Van Vugt says animal leadership also demonstrates how groups choose different leaders for different situations. In elephants, the de facto leader is usually the oldest female. But van Vugt says that can change.

VUGT: When the group is attacked, it may not be the oldest female who takes control. It might be like one of the dominant male members, if you like. But when it comes to knowledge problems, and particularly where to find water, they then turn to the oldest female.

HAMIILTON: Van Vugt says some animal leaders have traits we wish all human leaders had, like unfailing honesty. He says honeybees are a good example. Their scouts lead by finding a food source and then communicating the location to other bees, through something called a waggle dance.

VUGT: The interesting thing about it is in the signaling of the scout bees there is no deception whatsoever. I mean, they want to do what is best for the hive. And I think that is a little bit dissimilar to humans.

HAMIILTON: Or chimps, whose leaders are often accomplished liars.

Iain Couzin at Princeton says one way animals and people are clearly alike is that both are capable of choosing a bad leader.

COUZIN: It's not necessarily the most talented or intelligent individual that ends up in a leadership position. There can be this temporary, a sort of rise of power of an individual.

HAMIILTON: Temporary because bad leadership doesn't tend to last too long.

COUZIN: Typically in animals, if this person doesn't have substance behind what they're saying, then they will end up losing out in the longer term.

HAMIILTON: And animals don't wait for the next election to find a better choice. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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