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Start Making Better Choices

Updated on August 9, 2014
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Why are fish so smart? Because they go around in schools.

Turns out, it’s no joke. Just ask Christian Agrillo, a comparative psychologist at Italy’s University of Padova. In his research, Dr. Agrillo tests something called numerical competence. By placing three black dots in front of a desirable object (like food, or a door that leads to other fish) and two dots in front of an undesirable object (like no food, or a door that leads nowhere), Dr. Agrillo has been able to determine that fish have the ability to differentiate between different numbers.

Along the way, however, the researchers discovered something else. Put fish together and they make better decisions than they make when they’re alone.

Among human beings, this phenomenon is called aggregation, and it is the principle behind survey polls. One person’s opinion might not carry much weight, but the opinions of a thousand people take on considerable significance.

The comparison between people and fish, however, may end there. The explanation for more people producing more accurate results is simple: the outliers are nullified by the statistical mean so that, by design, individual opinions end up counting less. But NPR’s Shankar Vedantam suggests that fish somehow sense which of their number is smarter, and the more astute fish is accepted as the leader.

Mr. Vedantam goes on to suggest that this sort of intellectual meritocracy could be valuable to human beings, particularly if the principle were applied to presidential debates and electoral contests. But neither he nor the fish are holding their breath.

How do you make decisions as part of a group?

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What is your cat thinking?

Writing for Slate, David Grimm reports some interesting observations on how animals act and think.

Dr. Agrillo’s team observed that cats show less aptitude than fish for distinguishing three dots from two. However, cats are better at recognizing the size of the dots than the number of them. This may have to do with the feline nature as a hunter, which creates a greater concern for the size of the quarry.

Duke University’s Brian Hare discovered that dogs will almost always follow a human’s pointing finger in choosing between two options. In contrast, chimpanzees are indifferent. This skill is so important to intellectual development that evolutionists might see it as a critical factor in why monkeys never climbed higher up the evolutionary ladder. Cats do as well as dogs, but they don’t like being tested and often refuse to cooperate in the laboratory.

Ádám Miklósi, a Hungarian scientist, has found that if you give your pet an impossible task, like pulling out a bowl of food that is secured to the floor, cats persevere in futile effort. On the other hand, dogs quickly look to their masters for help. Like fish, dogs seem to understand the benefit of relying on others who demonstrate superior wisdom.

Bold as a lion or sly as a fox?

Interestingly, the Talmud offers the very same insight when it says: Initiate a greeting to every person, and be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes.

How many of us march through life focused only on our destination, disinterested in the people we pass, refusing to even make eye contact with or crack a smile to co-workers we see every day, much less to passing strangers? How much would it cost us to offer a friendly word, a pleasant smile, or even a nod of recognition? Imagine how many lives we could brighten up just a little bit with almost no effort at all.

And imagine how else we might benefit from these smallest of overtures. Every now and again we might make a new acquaintance, or perhaps a new friend. We might open up new social or business opportunities, and expose ourselves to new ideas and new ways of thinking.

And imagine still further, if we were willing to act like fish, not trying to assert control over others -- whether in thought or in action -- but allowing ourselves to consider that the intuitions and insights of others might be informed by greater wisdom than our own.

If we’re surrounded by foxes, at least we can try to lead. But foxes are sneaky, often leading from behind or pursuing their own agendas under the guise of submission. How much better to seek out lions, true leaders worthy of following, and let them show us the direction that will steer us down the road to success and happiness.

After all, if fish are smart enough to recognize wisdom in those around them, what's our excuse?

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