The Waggle Dance

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This weekend I had the privilege of attending the Bowen Center’s annual Symposium. The main presenter was Dr. Thomas Seeley, a biology professor at Cornell who studies the phenomenon of swarm intelligence in honey bees.

Dr. Seeley gave a presentation about how honeybees solve the dilemma of finding a new home. Bee scouts will individually visit a potential location, and when they return, they will perform a “waggle dance” for the others which communicates the distance and direction of the prospective site. The level of enthusiasm in their dance also indicates just how sweet the spot is. Over time, in true democratic form, the bees will keep voting via waggle dancing until there is a consensus on the new home.

What was most fascinating to me about this phenomenon is that no honey bee scout will vote on a site that she has not visited herself. She observes the dance of her peers, but she must go herself to investigate the site before she will begin to dance out her vote. She won’t take anyone’s word for it.

Hearing Dr. Seeley’s presentation really made me think—how many of my own beliefs have I borrowed from others without the use of my own logic and reasoning? These could be political or religious beliefs, or simply opinions about how the world works or whether a movie was good.

Many of us voted in last week’s midterm elections, and I’m embarrassed to say that some of my choices were made simply from observing the “waggle dances” of others I respect. It’s easy to make the excuse that I simply don’t have time to “fly over” and inspect every issue before I make a decision. But what is the collective loss when that becomes the norm in a group?

Dr. Seeley writes that groups possess a higher level of swarm intelligence (SI) if they have the following:

1) diversity of knowledge about the available options
2) open and honest sharing of information about the options
3) independence in the members’ evaluations of the options
4) unbiased aggregation of the members’ opinions on the options
5) leadership that fosters but does not dominate the discussion

Imagine if citizens of the US were able to apply these principles to a challenging topic, like mass shootings or healthcare. Developing beliefs and principles is one thing, but accessing them in times of anxiety and uncertainty is quite another. So is allowing them to be flexible enough to change should additional evidence challenge them.

Obviously it is impossible for an individual to research or investigate every issue in the world. I’m having a baby very soon, and you can bet that my sleep-deprived self is going to accept some friends’ waggle dances as truth when I need a quick parenting tip or need to purchase an item of baby gear. But when it comes to the important points—who I want to be as a mother and how I want to relate to others during this time as my best self—I don’t want to phone those in.

So here are my questions for you this week:

1. When are you likely to accept the waggle dance of another (a friend, a family member, a politician, a celebrity, etc.) without using your own thinking and observation? 

2. How does your family, your work, or your community suffer when people make decisions based on emotional and relationship pressure rather than individual thinking? 

Thinking for one’s self in a group is incredibly difficult, especially when anxiety is high. Most of the time you end up simply conforming to relational pressure, cutting off from the group, or investing all of our energy into forcing others to change. But what if you simply took the time to define your beliefs and danced them out?

It’s so easy to underestimate the power of defining one’s self and allowing the others to do the same. If I take the time to do good thinking and begin to dance, people are going to notice. They might not agree with me, but they are certainly a bit freer to think for themselves rather than simply react. The whole group is calmer, and together we can make smarter decisions based in reality. It seems like the honey bees have figured this out, but we humans have got some work to do.

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