Collective rationality in a virtual forest: What processes underlie optimal foraging in fission-fusion societies?
TWCF Number
Project Duration
September 1 / 2022
- August 31 / 2024
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
Amount Awarded

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Karline Janmaat
Institution University of Amsterdam

Emiel van Loon
Institution University of Amsterdam

Many social organisms synergize their actions in order to make collective decisions, yet the processes through which collective actions emerge remain perplexing. Improving our comprehension of these processes is not only important for our fundamental understanding of how social systems organize themselves, but also for solving societal issues requiring global collective actions.

A new project at the University of Amsterdam aims to examine the processes that underlie decision-making by individuals that are part of a group. Led by Karline R. L. Janmaat and Emiel Eliza van Loon, this research team hypothesizes that the decision to cooperate or to compete is arrived at similarly in humans and chimpanzees and can be replicated by computerized agents given sets of behavioral rules. The team will test humans, chimpanzees, and artificial intelligent agents in a simulated forest environment (VR) within the context of a necessity known to all organisms: foraging for food. 

This virtual reality environment in which humans, apes, and artificial intelligence agents can all interact with one another is based on real-world data. In essence, it abstracts elements of real-world interactions down to simple, specific actions. This eliminates the subjectivity of coding behavior that frequently bedevils observational studies, and creates a level playing field on which behaviors of these three very different kinds of actors can be studied with apples-to-apples comparisons. In this setting, elements of the forest’s ecological aspects (e.g., fruit amounts and locations, and stressors such as impending nightfall) and social aspects (e.g., the presence of virtual avatars that can aid or hinder participants) will be manipulated by the team. Behavior of humans and chimps will be evaluated for optimality as measured by the acquisition of goods – in this case, virtual fruit. Rationality in decision-making will be plumbed by probing consistency and logic of choices. Attention to particular input factors will be gauged using eye-tracking software to measure the foragers’ gaze locations and durations.

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