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Simple tricks to fool smart ants

ants cognition swarm intelligence

Insects share many basic cognitive and perceptual mechanisms with us. On the one hand, this makes them ‘smarter’ than commonly expected. On the other, it means that they can be fooled by the same cognitive tricks which work on us. For example, many retailers use the behavioural economic manipulation of ‘bundling’ to manipulate us into buying more. This simple trick involves putting many small prices together into one total, which is then perceived as smaller than the sum of all the small prices separately. We tested this bundling effect on ants, and found that ants indeed like rewards less – as measured by pheromone deposition - if the cost of reaching them was split over three stages, rather than all paid in one go. However, while apparent liking was affected, subsequent choice was not. This may tell us something fundamental about how travel costs are uniquely perceived by ants. When travelling, ants often encounter other ants on the trail. These nestmates are a valuable source of information – especially if the ants could use this information to learn about the state of the world in distant locations. For example, encountering many ants returning from a food source known to have a limited capacity may imply that this food source should be avoided. Amazingly, outgoing ants do strongly respond to meeting returning ants, but only if the food source they encountered had a limited capacity. The ants seem to perform forward mental time travel, inferring that one feeder might be overexploited when they will arrive, even though they have never experienced this feeder as over-exploited. This suggests a truly unexpected level of cognitive sophistication. This sort of research, from our own group and others, is forcing us to re-evaluate how we imagine the inner lives of insects. Insects are much more than simple automata, and may in many ways be more similar to us than usually supposed.

Dr Tomer Czackes
Group leader at the University of Regensburg, Germany