Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Making decisions: Optimally interacting minds

Bahrami et al. find conditions under which two heads are - and are not - better than one. Science Magazine gives a nice summary:
When two people peer into the distance and try to figure out if a faint number is a three or an eight, classical signal detection theory states that the joint decision can only be as good as that of the person with higher visual acuity. Bahrami et al. propose that a discussion not only of what each person perceives but also of the degree of confidence in those assignments can improve the overall sensitivity of the decision. Using a traditional contrast-detection task, they showed that, when the individuals did not differ too much in their powers of visual discrimination, collective decision-making significantly improved sensitivity. The model offered here formalizes debates held since the Enlightenment about whether collective thinking can outperform that of elite individuals.
The Bahrami et al. abstract:
In everyday life, many people believe that two heads are better than one. Our ability to solve problems together appears to be fundamental to the current dominance and future survival of the human species. But are two heads really better than one? We addressed this question in the context of a collective low-level perceptual decision-making task. For two observers of nearly equal visual sensitivity, two heads were definitely better than one, provided they were given the opportunity to communicate freely, even in the absence of any feedback about decision outcomes. But for observers with very different visual sensitivities, two heads were actually worse than the better one. These seemingly discrepant patterns of group behavior can be explained by a model in which two heads are Bayes optimal under the assumption that individuals accurately communicate their level of confidence on every trial.

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