Foraging for Information

Business Logo for Psychological and Neuropsychological IssuesIt appears that people in search of information are similar to animals searching for food.  Foraging theory suggests that animals always maximize the amount of food consumed at any point in time.  Animals move on to a different foraging area when expected gains outweigh current consumption.  There may be a natural correlation with the method humans use to surf the web.  People consume information in a way that is analogous to the way animals consume food.

This parallel has been advanced by psychologist Peter Pirolli.  Models that predict when a bird will seek other food sources may also predict when a person will move to a different web page.  Pirolli extolls the concept of information scent.  Animals use the olfactory awareness of particular molecules to discover a food source.  Humans use their conceptual awareness of particular words and images to discover the information they are seeking.  Animals will move to a different foraging area in the absence of tasty odors, and people will move to different web page in the absence of relevant words and images.

The analogy between humans and animals has also been extended to groups.  It is often the case that animals forage in groups.  The disadvantage of sharing one’s food is counterbalanced by the discovery of more places to eat.  Animal groups do not grow without limit for a good reason.  The cost of sharing food becomes too great when the group exceeds a certain size.  The benefit of greater foraging information does not outweigh the loss of food to other animals in the group.  Groups of animals in the natural world tend to reach an maximal size, and then reduce to a more optimal level over time.

Humans tend to learn and create knowledge more effectively in groups than in isolation.  Pirolli and his colleagues are currently studying the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.  They are attempting to determine if the reduction in editors over time is analogous to animal population models.  Perhaps the time allocated by an individual editor becomes less important as the number of editors increase.  Perhaps the quest to impart or create information had been satisfied when the encyclopedia reached an optimal size.  Perhaps this human situation is not analogous to animal models.  Time and research will tell.

It is likely that the animal and human models diverge over the issue of credibility.  It is unlikely that birds or lions are constantly evaluating the credibility of their peers before making a judgement to forage elsewhere.  It is likely that reducing Wikipedia editors of doubtful credibility had a role in limiting the size of this population.  On the other hand, social prestige is likely an important factor in both human and animal models.  A group of animals will tend to follow their leader, and an avowed expert will tend to have the last word in Wikipedia.  Such analogies are a powerful component of human reasoning, but may lead one astray when the analogy is extended too far.  Regardless, such powerful parallels between animal and human behavior is inherently fascinating.  Many people are doubtful or even offended by the similarities between animal and human behavior.  The motive is not aimed at reducing people to animals; rather it is to discover the bricks that serve as the foundation of human behavior.

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