London, June 14 : Israeli researchers have discovered that humans and bees share are quite similar to each other in terms of decision making and risk taking.
A study by researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University shows that when making decisions, people and bees alike are more likely to gamble on risky courses of action rather than take a safer option, when the differences between the various possible outcomes are easily distinguishable.
However, both groups are far more likely to select the safer option when the outcomes are difficult to discern, even if the actual probabilities of success have not changed.
The findings help shed light on why people are inclined to choose certainty when differences between potential outcomes - such as paybacks when gambling or returns on financial investments - are difficult to discern.
The researchers have revealed that in tests with 50 college students, the subjects chose between two unmarked computer buttons - pushing one of the buttons resulted in a payoff of three credits with 100 per cent certainty, while pushing the other led to a payoff of four credits with an 80 per cent certainty.
The participants learned such payoffs through trial and error as they flashed on screen.
Each subject was required to make 400 such decisions, and tended to choose the risky strategy when payoffs were represented as simple numbers (i.e. "3 credits" and "4 credits").
The researchers said that they obtained similar results when the numerals 3 and 4 were replaced with easily distinguishable clouds of 30 and 60 dots.
However, when the numerals were replaced with clouds of 30 or 40 dots, making it much more difficult to distinguish between the two, subjects veered towards the more certain outcome.
The research team also subjected honeybees to similar trials, using the bees' sense of smell and 2 µl drops of sugar solution payoffs of varying concentrations.
The bees were first tested with payoffs for risky and safe alternatives at 10 per cent and five per cent sugar concentrations, respectively.
In a second experiment, the payoffs were a less-easy-to-discriminate-between 6.7 per cent and five per cent, while in a third experiment, the payoff in both alternatives was 6.7 per cent.
The bees had to make 32 such decisions, and were given a choice between two smells, each presented twice for one-second each, in an alternating sequence.
The bees tended towards the risky strategy only when their choice was easily discernable, paralleling their human counterparts.
Professor Ido Erev of the Technion Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management says that some practical implications of this research can be seen in an analysis of the values placed on rule enforcement in the workplace.
According to him, the results suggest that consistent and constant rule enforcement is necessary because workers are more likely to ignore risks if they have done so before without punishment.
The results also suggest that workers are likely to be supportive of enforcement, since they initially plan to obey many of the rules (wearing safety goggles, for instance) they end up violating.
Another indication that the findings give, adds Erev, is that severe penalties that are not always enforced are not likely to be effective, but gentle, consistently enforced rewards and punishments can be.
"The similar responses by humans and bees demonstrates that this decision-making process happens very early in evolution. The results suggest that this is a very basic phenomenon shared by many different animals," said Erev.