This is excellent stuff:

recently, [Iain Couzin] has modelled the behaviour of shoals of fish. He posited that how they swim will depend on each individual’s competing tendencies to stick close to the others (and thus move in the same direction as them) while not actually getting too close to any particular other fish. It turns out that by fiddling with these tendencies, a virtual shoal can be made to swirl spontaneously in a circle, just like some real species do.

That is a start. But real shoals do not exist to swim in circles. Their purpose is to help their members eat and avoid being eaten. At any one time, however, only some individuals know about—and can thus react to—food and threats. Dr Couzin therefore wanted to find out how such temporary leaders influence the behaviour of the rest.

He discovered that leadership is extremely efficient. The larger a shoal is, the smaller is the proportion of it that needs to know what is actually going on for it to feed and avoid predation effectively. Indeed, having too many leaders with conflicting opinions results in confusion. At least, that is true in the model. He is now testing it in reality.

I would think economists would be interested in this computer simulation …

Couzin also studies spontaneous order among ants.  And Couzin has a whole research lab devoted to collective animal behavior.  Here’s his CV.

Here’s Couzin explaining his research program and it’s application to ants, schooling fish, etc.:


And part 2:


  • There was also work done where the researchers took out a part of a schooling fish’s brain so that it only swam in one direction no matter what. It was then put in with a school, and the school followed that fish no matter what. So the fish are programmed to follow the fish that is most determined to go in a particular direction. Why? Because the most determined fish is likely to know something the others don’t.

  • [...] Local Knowledge & Spontaneous Order In A Shoal Of Fish [...]

  • [...] Another strategy would be to go study with a younger research scientists with an interest in graduate students working in a research growth area, with strong future growth potential. For example, if you are interested in Hayek’s ideas on spontaneous order, you might direct your studies in such a way that you would be of interest to Iain Couzin and his Collective Animal Behavior Lab at Princeton. [...]

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