Ant bridge collective (photo: Shutterstock)

Fireflies do it, ants do it, microbes do it — and humans do it, too: we all form collectives. We come together in groups, behaving in ways that are shaped by complex systems of patterns and interactions. We also break apart. Figuring out how that happens can help us understand our responses to some of the world’s biggest challenges.

“I think the problem of collectives is the most important problem of our society today — to understand what are we doing, where are we going, how can we maybe tweak our systems to function better in these new technological and political circumstances,” says SFI Professor Mirta Galesic

She and colleagues Michael Hochberg (SFI external professor, University of Montpellier) and Jeremy Van Cleve (former SFI Omidyar Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Kentucky) organized a recent three-day meeting on collective behavior. 

Constructing and Deconstructing Collectives: Signals to Space and Society,” a virtual workshop in late January, drew 45 scientists from physics, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and beyond. “We are building our own collective,” Galesic says, to explore new research directions in collective behavior.

The past two years of the pandemic provided a real-life lab for some of their questions. “COVID-19 was a great example,” Van Cleve says. “We continually see certain patterns, increasing division, people sort of breaking apart into factions that are aligning in kind of completely predictable ways.” Understanding those behaviors could offer insights into human groups and their responses to pressing problems — whether it’s a public health threat or environmental change. 

These studies lead to questions about “individual freedom versus what’s best for the collective,” Hochberg says. Ultimately, we all hope to know: “How do we get greater degrees of alignment on important issues?” 

Collective behavior happens all around us. Male fireflies synchronize their flashing to what others nearby are doing. Army ants build living bridges across gaps in the forest floor. Researchers hope to build mathematical models that explain such behaviors in other organisms to better understand human collectives. “That was really a unifying thread,” Galesic says.

These are big questions, and “we’re just scratching the surface,” Hochberg says. Stay tuned — the collective has more research and discussion to come.