Book Review: “The Perfect Swarm” by Len Fisher

I love to read, and I especially love to read nonfiction books that help me understand how the world works.  So, I’m going to be providing reviews of some of the books that I’ve been reading lately, and let you in on why I like (or don’t like) them and what I’m learning.

Recently I picked up a copy of The Perfect Swarm by Len Fisher, Ph.D., which focuses on the science of complexity in everyday life  Dr. Fisher has also written books on game theory in real life (Rock, Paper, Scissors) and the optimal way to dunk a doughnut (aptly named How to Dunk a Doughnut).  It turns out that Fisher was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for the dunking donut work – the award is usually reserved for work that just plain bad, but Fisher has apparently turned his lemon into lemonade…

In The Perfect Swarm, Fisher describes how bees, ants, locusts, and fish use swarm intelligence to guide group movements and to help in the search for food.  Humans use swarm intelligence as well, and Fisher describes multiple interesting ways that we can take advantage of these concepts to make better judgments in everyday life.  Here’s just some of the interesting concepts and principles that come out of his analysis of complexity:

  • To move a group in the direction you want (for example, within a company), lead from the inside, but take care not to let other members of the group know what you are doing.  Just head in the direction that you want to go, and leave it to the laws of the swarm to do the rest.
  • If you are in a crowd in a dangerous situation, use a mixed strategy for escape; follow the crowd 60 percent of the time, and spend the other 40 percent searching out escape routes on your own.
  • If you want to persuade a large group of people, or even start a craze, don’t rely on persuading someone with influence to pass the message on.  It is far better to try for a critical mass of early adopters – people who will take the idea or product up after a single exposure.
  • When confronted with a mass of data that you need to use as the basis of a decision, furst use Benford’s Law to check that the data haven’t been faked.
  • Avoid the perils of groupthink by escaping temporarily from the group environment, doing some independent thinking, and committing yourself to the conclusions of that thinking before returning to the group.
  • Spread your bets evenly.  Instead of choosing one alternative over another, allocate your resources equally to each.

And here’s a really interesting one – especially if you are hiring someone in your company:

  • If you want to give yourself the best chance of choosing the very best option in a situation that doesn’t allow you to go back to the options that you have rejected, look at 37 percent of those available, then choose the next one that is better than any of them.  This will give you a 1 in 3 chance of finding the best option, and a very high chance of finding one in the top few percent.

I am incredibly interested in systems that have simple rules yet create complex behavior.  The world can be modeled as a system using simple rules, and Fisher is quite effective in showing us some interesting and useful things that come from looking at these systems.  It’s a good read, interesting to understand the concepts he’s getting across, and, I would say, worth the time.  You can pick up a copy of The Perfect Swarm here

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I currently serve as Vice President of Decision Science at CenturyLink. I've previously served as a leader in the Advanced Risk & Compliance Analytics (ARCA) practice at PwC and as Director of Data Science & Analytics Engineering at Areté Associates. I've served the public as Chair of the Thousand Oaks, CA Planning Commission. I have been married to my wife Stephanie since 1993, and we have a wonderful daughter Monroe. Learn more about me »

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