Here’s what turned out to be a somewhat prescient article from the June issue of Prospect magazine, which starts off by asking why it is that some of us, especially within group environments, are wont to perpetrate acts of carnage and destruction against our fellow humans, whilst the vast majority of us at an individual level would never even contemplate such actions. Furthermore, there are common perceptions of suicide bombers as being crazed individuals, misfit loners marginalised at the edge of society – but such simplifications are often misguided, if not totally unfounded…

This question troubles many who look into the psychology of extreme acts. One completely unsatisfactory answer is that violent extremists are insane, disturbed or inherently bad. It’s unsatisfactory because the vast majority of suicide bombers, the 7/7 four included, show no sign of mental illness and have no criminal history. They are often better educated than their peers and hold respectable jobs—much has been made of Khan’s work as a youth worker.

As many will be aware, there were several failed bomb attacks in the UK over the weekend, but what has surprised most of us is that all those so far arrested were either doctors or medical students, with one more having worked as a lab technician, all of whom had links with the National Health Service – in other words, these were all intelligent and qualified individuals, working in a profession supposedly dedicated to relieving distress and suffering, and most of all protecting human life – the ultimate irony in this case is that there was the outside possibility that these same individuals could at some stage have been treating and caring for victims of these or other bombings.

Suicide bombing is a classic—though extreme—example. There is virtually no recorded case of a suicide bomber acting alone. The bomber is always recruited and guided by a group with specific political or ideological aims, and the bombers tend to adopt a brotherhood mentality towards each other, encouraged by their common cause, their loyalty to the group and the secrecy of their mission. To use a battlefield metaphor (and the mentality is not so different), they go over the top together.

There is no scientific evidence so far that certain sorts of individuals may be more easily persuaded into extreme action than others, though some experts have implied as much. Ariel Merari at Tel Aviv University, perhaps the foremost expert on the psychology of suicide bombers, suggests that bombers may be more open to influence by social forces and fearful of alienation. Rohan Gunaratna, who has interviewed many “failed” bombers, says such people are easy to interrogate because they have a narrow mindset; when they see that their worldview does not hold up to scrutiny, they easily break.

Although we often consider ourselves to be the most intelligent and organised species on the planet, it seems we still have a lot to learn from the animal kingdom, especially when it comes to decision making and conflict resolution at the group level – I was reading an article at National Geographic, which discusses swarm theory in animals, particularly ants and bees, who are able to almost organise themselves into effective units capable of carrying out a multitide of tasks mediated by many simple actions and signals at the individual level – even when there is apparent disagreement from certain individuals as to the best course of action, for instance when honey-bees are searching for a suitable location in which to found a new hive.

Where this intelligence comes from raises a fundamental question in nature: How do the simple actions of individuals add up to the complex behavior of a group? How do hundreds of honeybees make a critical decision about their hive if many of them disagree? What enables a school of herring to coordinate its movements so precisely it can change direction in a flash, like a single, silvery organism? The collective abilities of such animals—none of which grasps the big picture, but each of which contributes to the group’s success—seem miraculous even to the biologists who know them best. Yet during the past few decades, researchers have come up with intriguing insights.

One key to an ant colony, for example, is that no one’s in charge. No generals command ant warriors. No managers boss ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no management at all—at least none that we would recognize. It relies instead upon countless interactions between individual ants, each of which is following simple rules of thumb. Scientists describe such a system as self-organizing.

This is a 5-page article, which I won’t discuss in full right now, but it does provide some very interesting insights into group behaviour, including how shoals of fish are able to act as a single unit as a means of protecting themselves from approaching predators, as well as explaining how some businesses are using swarm theory models to effect the best delivery systems to their customers – a final word on bees…

When it comes to swarm intelligence, ants aren’t the only insects with something useful to teach us. On a small, breezy island off the southern coast of Maine, Thomas Seeley, a biologist at Cornell University, has been looking into the uncanny ability of honeybees to make good decisions. With as many as 50,000 workers in a single hive, honeybees have evolved ways to work through individual differences of opinion to do what’s best for the colony. If only people could be as effective in boardrooms, church committees, and town meetings, Seeley says, we could avoid problems making decisions in our own lives.

Definitely worth reading the whole article, and here’s a link to a page by Craig Reynolds whose research into swarm intelligence has led him to create Boids, simulated flocking software, plus discussion as to how knowledge gleaned from such research will aid future applications in the field of robotics – included is a veritable swarm of links to what appear to be an excellent set of resources on linked topics. (via Mind Hacks) (TJ)

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