Polya’s bees: A model of decentralized decision-making

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Science Advances  18 Sep 2015:
Vol. 1, no. 8, e1500253
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500253


How do social systems make decisions with no single individual in control? We observe that a variety of natural systems, including colonies of ants and bees and perhaps even neurons in the human brain, make decentralized decisions using common processes involving information search with positive feedback and consensus choice through quorum sensing. We model this process with an urn scheme that runs until hitting a threshold, and we characterize an inherent tradeoff between the speed and the accuracy of a decision. The proposed common mechanism provides a robust and effective means by which a decentralized system can navigate the speed-accuracy tradeoff and make reasonably good, quick decisions in a variety of environments. Additionally, consensus choice exhibits systemic risk aversion even while individuals are idiosyncratically risk-neutral. This too is adaptive. The model illustrates how natural systems make decentralized decisions, illuminating a mechanism that engineers of social and artificial systems could imitate.

  • consensus decision making
  • quorum
  • decentralized systems
  • Polya urn process

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