Tag Archives: problem solving

Ants, Advertising and Better Decision Making

Inside view of an ant’s brain

What’s the best way to make a decision? Should you go rogue, or consult with a group? New research about ants gives insight into decision making that you can tryout with picking movies or cracking a gnarly marketing problem.

Popping up an idea into a bold advertising campaign, for example, requires dozens if not hundreds and thousands of decisions. Clients, writers, art directors, account managers, photographers, and animators make them individually or collectively.

Going solo, the psychological impact of excessive choice is overwhelming and counterproductive to decision making. This is why we sometimes settle for the tried and true, like ordering the same latte every day, because you don’t have time to explore the other 40 options.

For people in advertising, especially, settling is not an option. The same old, same old, doesn’t work. So how can we make better creative decisions?

For better results, act like an ant.

By studying ants, Temnothorax rugatulusants, Scientists at the Arizona State University showed that six-legged creatures are just as vulnerable to information overload as we are.

In the experiment, a single ant, and then a colony of ants were unleashed to find the most suitable of eight possible nests. The ants had to consider a number of variables, including the size and darkness of the prospective dwelling, and the characteristics of, and the and opening to their nests, and the size of the opening. In other words, house hunting.

Single ants made poor choices 50% of the time. But the group of ants shared Intel through scents and made better decisions. It’s fascinating that the ants were able to synthesize, when only one had visited all eight nests. “One of them visited all eight nests, but most colony members visited only one or two nests, said Dr. Takao Sasaki, an assistant professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences.

“What we really want is a more complete understanding as to how this society works as a kind of distributed brain,” said co-researcher and associate professor Stephen Pratt. He further suggests that this type of “distributed brain” may have uses in robotics. Our brains work in a similar way. The frontal cortex takes charge of problem solving after considering decisions made by other parts of the brain.

The downside of collective decision-making is speed, and potential group think. But if you’re ultimate goal is to make an important choice, you’ll do better if you listen to the IT guy, engineering, marketing, and customers, and, of course, the ad agency. None of them will have the complete picture, but exposing additional facets, facts, and conclusions will result in better decision.

In a complex, technological society, no one can has all the answers. So, instead of squishing the next ant you see, you might want to start acting like one.

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Brain Stuck in the Mud? Redefine Your Problem.

Has your latest round of ideas crashed, burned and scraped? Take a new look at your problem with a technique called reframing.

Researchers at Cornell and the University of Chicago, for example, reframed the problem of creating robotic hands, which are
notorious for dropping things. Instead of mimicking human hands, they reframed the hand problem as finding a way to reliably grip objects.
The Universal Jamming Gripper is a plain latex balloon filled with coffee grounds. Its lowered over an object, e.g. a pair of scissors, and the pneumatic pump
sucks the air out of the balloon that makes the coffee grounds rigid, and enables it to pick up odd shaped objects, small pyramids, and a coffee mug. Occam’s Razor rules again.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rna03IlJjf8&w=480&h=360]

Reframing starts with letting go of your previous ideas and assumptions, and redefining a problem. For example, drinking a cup of coffee turns into finding an efficient way to get caffeine into your system. Other good questions to ask are:

  • Why are we thinking about this anyway?
  • What will happen if we don’t solve this problem? What will we do then?
  • Let’s solve that problem.
  • Instead of retooling products for existing customers, find customers that match your existing products.
  • Or, instead of balancing a budget by nibbling away at line items, why not find a new job?

So next time your brain is stuck in the mud, redefine your problem and find a better solution. Your team will be happier, and you won’t come up with a robotic hand covered in mud.

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