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Divided, we fall: How ant behavior mimics political polarization, Ars Technica

Divided, we fall: How ant behavior mimics political polarization, Ars Technica
    

      Of ants and men –

             

Division of labor, polarization arise from social influence plus interaction bias.

      

      

“Our findings suggest that division of labor and political polarization — two social phenomena not typically considered together — may actually be driven by the same process, “said co-author Chris Tokita , a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University. “Division of labor is seen as a benefit to societies, while political polarization usually isn’t, but we found that the same dynamics could theoretically give rise to them both.”

Tokita and his advisor / co-author, Corina Tarnita, were collaborating with a group at Rockefeller University that was using camera tracking to study ants — specifically, how division of labor emerges in very small groups (between 19 – (ants). Their job was to devise a model for a behavioral mechanism that would explain the patterns that the Rockefeller people had observed in their experiments. “Originally, we thought social interactions might play a part,” Tokita told Ars. “But it turns out we did not need to think about social interactions to capture their results.”

Tokita was familiar with the growing body of research in the social sciences involving opinion dynamics models — that is, how popular opinions can change over time as they interact with and influence each other. And he noticed that the emergence of political polarization within such models was similar to how division of labor emerges among ant colonies.

He thought it should be possible to combine the response threshold model he’d developed for the ants’ social dynamics with the basic mechanism behind political polarization: a feedback loop between social influence and interaction bias. Social influence is the tendency of individuals to become similar to those they interact with, while interaction bias describes our tendency to interact with others who are already like us.

In In Tokita’s original ant model, the ants choose their jobs within the colony based on which need meets a critical internal threshold. For example, if one ant has a lower threshold for hunger, it will be more likely to go forage for food, while another ant with a low threshold for concern about the colony’s larvae will devote more time to the nursery. Over time, each ant will have more interactions with other ants with thresholds similar to its, leading to the natural emergence of two groups: foragers and care providers.

This is usually a positive development, since it allows for the efficient functioning of the colony. However, Tokita and Tarnita found that if you add a strong feedback loop between social influence and interaction bias into the model, the two groups soon become so divided that they rarely interact at all, to the detriment of the colony as a whole.

According to Tokita, when only social influence is present, individuals interact randomly and become similar, so no division of labor naturally develops. When only interaction bias is present, individuals don’t differentiate, so you don’t get social factions. When both social forces are present, a strong feedback loop develops between them, resulting in both division of labor and polarized social networks. As both social influence and interaction bias increase, individual behavior becomes more specialized (biased) and individuals greater interactions with those who are similar.

                                                                                         

                      (Top) Model when only social influence is present. (Bottom) Model when only interaction bias is present. (Center) Both social forces produce division of labor and social polarization.

                                                        

                                              Chris Tokita, Princeton University

                                           

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