Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Study Spotlight: The Virtues of Laziness

Special thanks to this week's guest illustrator Tina Do, the world's newest entomological artist!

Generally speaking a good Sketchy Science article is one that requires a lot of research. Each miscoloured word in our article archive represents a resource that took time and effort to track down, read and integrate into the story. Every so often, though, a single resource stands out for its peculiarity and warrants an article all to itself. That is the case this week as we shine the Sketchy Science Study Spotlight on some new research from the University of Arizona that may help you feel a bit better about putting your feet up.
If you know anything about ant colonies, you know that every individual has a job that contributes to the well-being of the entire group
. It is a metaphor that is often used to encourage unemployed teenagers with too much free time to drop off a resume at the local burger joint; but, as it turns out, those lazy teenagers might just be manifestations of a law of complex systems: some individuals just don’t want to work.

Researchers working on the new study discovered that certain ants of the species Temnothorax rugatulus seem to specialize in inactivity. While most members of their colonies busy themselves building things, finding food or tending to the queen, these ants spent their time not doing much of anything. The apparent laziness wasn’t confined to a single colony either, it was seen in all five of the groups the scientists looked at. While this kind of behaviour is grudgingly tolerated in human society, the researchers wondered why the cold, indifferent hand of nature wouldn’t act to sort out the free-loaders. They came up with a couple theories:

Flexibility and Robustness – The first explanation is based on the merit an individual brings to a group simply by existing. As cold and indifferent as nature is, it is also unpredictable. One day might bring a bountiful supply of leaves or whatever, while the next day could bring a flood or an invasion from a neighbouring ant colony. The best way to be prepared for the things you cannot anticipate is to have some spare legwork waiting in reserve. Put simply by one of the researchers, “it’s better to have too many workers during the down times than not enough during the peaks.”

Threshold Response – Another possible explanation for lazy ants is that individuals might naturally vary in the threshold at which they begin working. To draw an example from the human world, if you’ve spent much time in the homes of university students you understand that different people can tolerate living in different degrees of filth. While one person might leap for the laundry detergent at the site of a single sock on the floor, others won’t lift a finger until they have run out of clothes, other still may never in fact learn that the apartment they are renting even has a laundry room. Some ants, the explanation goes, may not have the “pitch in” switch in their brains turn on until the colony is falling apart at the seams.

Colony Size – Finally, the researchers hypothesize that laziness in ants may just be a product of colony size. Ants in small colonies may be called on to do any number of jobs, so they must be prepared to do any of them at a moment’s notice. In larger colonies, work tends to be very specialized and when an ant with a specific purpose finds no work to do that matches it’s particular set of skills, it may just sit and wait until there is work to be done. The same phenomenon can be seen in small and large companies. In this writer’s experience, you are much more likely to find slackers at a massive corporation than at a small non-profit where resources are limited.

So why does any of this matter to use humans? Well, aside from the comfort of knowing that laziness might not be confined to our species, the lessons apply to the complex systems that power our culture. The researchers point out in an interview with Futurity that, “in cloud computing, where you have a network of servers working together to store or analyze data, you end up with some servers that are completely inactive.” It is just a naturally part of the way systems organize.

That is all well and good from a science perspective, but good luck explaining it to your boss next time he catches you playing Candy Crush.