New Scientist – Being a Social Outlier Might Make You a Better Problem-Solver

Dear Readers, whilst flicking through New Scientist this week, I was much taken by this story. Scientist Federica Amici, of the University of Leipzig, was interested in how different ungulates solved problems, and so she set various herds of horses, flocks of sheep and goats and other groups of hoofed animals a puzzle – how to get their favourite food from inside a covered cup.

The animals were first observed to see which individuals associated most and least with their herd mates, and they were also ranked according to how neophobic they were – a colourful ball was placed near their feeding area, and while some animals ignored it, others were very nervous when they saw it.

The results showed that animals who were outliers in their social groups were better at solving the problem, and were also much less bothered by the beachball. But why? One theory is that because these individuals weren’t integrated into the herd, they had to figure things out on their own without any ‘group think’. But on the other hand, what if these animals just enjoyed hanging out on their own? And could it be that because they had more time to observe and think, they were quicker at solving novel problems?

It’s another example of that most elusive thing to define, personality, and for the group as a whole it must be good to have a whole range of abilities and characteristics, so that whatever happens in the outside world, there’s the possibility of adaptation. But the study leaves as many questions as it answers.

Why are some animals so much quicker at solving problems than others? The Przewalski horses  in the experiment managed to get to the food in 6 seconds, compared with 5 minutes for the gazelles. The horses were wild, so it’s not that they’d been domesticated and were more familiar with the strange ways of humans. On the other hand, gazelles are extremely timid in my experience and so probably took a lot longer to approach the food.

I am intrigued by the idea of the outliers being the brainy ones, though. It feels like a high five to all the kids at school who weren’t allowed to join in, and for all those people who don’t feel part of the herd (like me). Next time you popular peeps want some alfalfa removed from a sealed cup, you know who to ask.

You can read the whole article here.

2 thoughts on “New Scientist – Being a Social Outlier Might Make You a Better Problem-Solver

  1. Anne

    I love the way your post ends! Seriously though, it wouldn’t surprise me if the so-called outliers had more ‘headspace’ in which to consider the problem, while those in the herd were focusing more on ‘belonging’ to the crowd.


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