Could civilization and nasty political debates on social media be borne from the same source? One study, surprisingly, found that it may be true.
Ask a thousand people what they think humanity’s greatest invention ever is and you’ll get a wealth of answers. ‘Fire’ would probably be mentioned often, along with a few others such as ‘the wheel’, ‘antibiotics’, or ‘food delivery’. They’re all wonderful mentions and definitely helped shape society into what it is today, but they only work in a very specific context — which, in my view, is our actual greatest invention.
I’m talking about the division of labor.
A new study using an ant-based model, however, suggests that it may also have a dark side. The same processes that made the division of labor possible, the team believes, are also driving political and social polarization, which are seen as destructive, destabilizing factors in society.
Ours with ours, yours with yours
“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 Christopher Tokita, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, the study’s lead author. “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.”
Division of labor is the process by which individuals in a community specialize in different tasks and exclude others. Overall, specialists can perform their respective tasks much more efficiently than generalists, and through trade, this improves the wellbeing of the community. A village that has a doctor, a craftsman, maybe a hunter, and some farmers would be a much better place to live in than one in which every individual had to grow their own food, heal their own diseases, produce their own goods, and hunt for themselves. If you’re into economics and familiar with the concept of comparative advantage, you have a pretty good idea of how the division of labor works.
Together with co-author Corina Tarnita, Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton, Tokita added two forces known to drive political polarization to existing models describing how the division of labor arises in an anthill. The authors report finding a feedback loop between these two forces that resulted both in specialized workers and polarized social networks. These two, the findings suggest, go hand-in-hand.
“It suggests that maybe there’s a common process underlying the organization of societies,” Tokita said.
The forces this paper looked into are “social influence”, which is the tendency of individuals to take on traits or mindsets from those they interact with, and “interaction bias”, which basically says that people like to interact with others they resemble. The researchers combined these with a “response threshold” model of ant social dynamics, in which ants choose their activities based on which need meets a critical internal threshold. Under this model, if two ants both check the food stores and the colony’s young, but one of the ants has a lower worry threshold for hunger and the other for the health of the larvae, they’d each seek to address their major individual worry.
Over time social influence and interaction bias strengthened in-group connections and weakened out-group ones, the team found. This made one of the ants interact more with its hunger-sensitive peers and become a forager, and the other with its larvae-sensitive peers, becoming a nursing ant.
However, herein lies the proverbial rub. The same dynamics also led to a wider and wider gulf between forager, nurses, and other groups (partisanship or tribalism) — the more the ants in a group interacted with their in-group peers, the more they would only interact with their in-group peers. This is especially problematic as the division of labor only functions when different groups work together.
“Social insect colonies thrive on the heterogeneity that leads to division of labor, but sometimes they need to make decisions that have to be embraced by the whole nest,” said Dr. Tarnita. “For example, when honeybees need to move their nest to a new location, it would be problematic if the colony couldn’t reach consensus and it ended up splitting,”
Not all is lost, however. The team explains that fighting the tendency to interact only with those similar to you, and accepting different viewpoints is a very efficient way of preventing polarization and rebuilding consensus.
“Our model predicts that if you interact with those who are different from you, over time, you’ll become similar to each other,” Tokita said. “It basically erases those differences.”
“One of the things I hope comes from this project is that it causes people in different fields, coming at and thinking about social behavior from different perspectives, to talk to each other a little more. In this project, we learned a lot by borrowing theories from sociology and political science, and combining them with our biological model.”
The paper “Social influence and interaction bias can drive emergent behavioural specialization and modular social networks across systems” has been published in the Journal of The Royal Society Interface.