Distracting collective behavior or why birds don’t collide in their flock?

A group of researchers at the University of Calgary have conducted an interesting research on countdown timers at intersections to see if they ever improve road safety and reduce collisions and car crashes. The result was very surprising. The device causes more crashes. The link is attached to this post. The explanation is convincing. But we can explain this surprising result from completely different aspect by social structures and drivers’ social behavior.

When we drive our cars in roads and highways, we, unintentionally, form a social structure by other drivers who drive in vicinity. Our social interaction with them is not to get very close in order to prevent any crash. Our collective behavior is to drive distant enough to have a safe drive. All these happen under a social and collective judgment which works properly most of the time. Adding technology such as countdown timer can distract the collective judgment because every driver has own interpretation from the number displayed on the timer.

The lesson we learn is that we have to be very cautious when we implement social recommendation tasks such as link and friend recommendation. The risk might be damaging organic social fabric. This is the criticism that we may have to “people you may know“ feature in LinkedIn and similar features in Facebook and Twitter. It seems the only objective is growing the network as fast as possible even with the cost of health of network.

Good examples of organic social fabric as channels to relay social and collective behavior are bird flocks and fish schools. There is no reported collisions or crash in bird flocks or fish schools although sometime tens of thousands of these species move in sync and harmony together. This might be because there are no nagging kid on the back seat, or catchy billboard ads, or sidewalk distractions, but the main reason is nothing distracts the collective behavior of birds and fish and this allows them behave based on their instinct.


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