17 Mar 2011

Joint Decision

After so many brainwashing meetings – I mean brainstorming – I start to wonder how best decisions should be made. Is more people better? With more people, information may be shared and loopholes may be filled. But will this affect efficiency?

In the February issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an interesting experiment by Ashley Ward and colleagues tested the effect of the number of members on decision making using mosquitofish, Gambusia holbrooki, from Australia. In the study, the fish was put to swim in a Y-shaped maze. In one of the arms hid a 12 cm replica predator. The mosquitofish were considered to have made the correct decision if they avoided the predator and swam to the other arm.

As predicted, the bigger the number of fish in the shoal, the more likely the fish would make correct decisions. Was that due to higher chance of including a clever fish in a bigger shoal? When each fish was tested in isolation, none of them performed significantly better than the others.

Now come the more interesting part. Contrary to our anticipation, bigger shoals always made quicker decisions than smaller ones. It turned out that the decision speed was determined by the first fish that made the decision, probably after it had caught sight of the predator. When there were more fish, the time for any one fish to spot the predator and start moving was shorter.

Can we learn a thing or two from mosquitofish?

I can see you shaking your head. Above all, Homo sapiens are not called the crown of creation for nothing. As advanced species, we always have experts who can see the whole picture when frontline workers can’t. Besides, we will never bump into a predator in ten seconds. With the new time-out exercise, it will take at least five minutes before we start swimming. Even if we bump into the predator despite all precautions, we still have the Advanced Incidents Reporting System (AIRS). In short, our system is fool-proof.

To me, the major drawback of following the mosquitofish model is that my voice will never be heard. The fastest fish, GW, will make all decisions at grand rounds before the rest of us can understand what is happening to the patients. Having said that, is it all that bad? Should I not benefit more by using the time to ask what stocks JW have bought recently?

The above discussion, as usual, is off the point. Brainstorming meetings are never meant for decision making, I know.

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