Consensus decision making in animals
Larissa Conradt and Timothy J. Roper
Department of Biology and Environmental Science, John Maynard Smith Building, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK, BN1 9QG
Individualanimalsroutinelyfacedecisionsthatarecrucialto their ﬁtness. In social species, however, many of thesedecisions need to be made jointly with other groupmembers because the group will split apart unless aconsensus is reached. Here, we review empirical andtheoretical studies of consensus decision making, andplace them in a coherent framework. In particular, weclassify consensus decisions according to the degree towhich they involve conﬂict of interest between groupmembers, and whether they involve either local or globalcommunication; we ask, for different categories ofconsensus decision, who makes the decision, what arethe underlying mechanisms, and what are the functionalconsequences. We conclude that consensus decisionmaking is common in non-human animals, and thatcooperation between group members in the decision-making process is likely to be the norm, even when thedecision involves signiﬁcant conﬂict of interest.Introduction
A ‘consensus decision’ (see Glossary) is when the membersof a group choose between two or more mutually exclusiveactions with the aim of reaching a consensus. Humansmake consensus decisions all the time, from large-scaleinternational agreements and democratic elections, tosmall-scale agreements reached by a few people. Humansocieties are unable to function without consensusdecisions, and some of the most pressing problems facinghumanity result from large-scale failures to reach aconsensus (e.g. the signing of the Kyoto Agreementrelating to climate change). Therefore, understandinghow consensus decision making works, and why humanssometimes fail at it, is fundamental.Non-human social animals also frequently makeconsensus decisions. Consider, for example, a group of primates deciding where to travel after a rest period, asmallﬂockofbirdsdecidingwhentoleaveaforagingpatch, or a swarmof beeschoosing a newnest site. Ineach
of these cases, unless all members decide on the sameaction, the group will split and its members will forfeitmany of the advantages of group living. Everydayexamples such as these, together with an increasing bodyof empirical evidence[1–3,5–10], suggest that consensusdecisions have an important role in the lives of socialanimals.The existence of consensus decision making in animalsthat do not communicate verbally raises intriguingquestions. For example, which group members contributeto consensus decisions (Box 1)? How do they communicateand reach a consensus? What arethe ﬁtness consequencesfor individual group members? Here, we address thesequestions while reviewing the relevant literature andplacing it into a systematic framework (Figure 1).Empiricalexamplesofconsensusdecisionsthatdifferinthe extent to which they involve conﬂict of interest
members of a group choose individually (but notnecessarily independently) between two or more actions. They do not aim forconsensus but the combined results of their decisions usually affect the groupas a whole.
if there is a conﬂict of interest involved in a consensusdecision, individual members can incur ‘consensus costs’ (in terms of reducedﬁtness) of forgoing their own optimal action to comply with the decisionoutcome.
members of a group choose between two or moremutually exclusive actions with the speciﬁc aim of reaching a consensus.
the same member (e.g. dominant) always leads groupactions.
Equally shared consensus decision:
all members contribute equally (andindependentlyof individualidentity)to thedecisionoutcome.Theconsensusisusually determined by a quorum or by averaging over all votes.
a society consisting of casual groups of variable sizeand composition, which form, break up and reform at frequent intervals.
all group members can communicate directly with allother group members.
a decision made by the animals within a group. Groupdecisions can be ‘consensus decisions’ or ‘combined decisions’.
integration of information that is available to allindividual decision makers during a consensus decision-making process.
groupsinwhichmemberscanonlycommunicatelocally(i.e.withneighbouring group members).
Partially shared consensus decision:
a proportion of members (often ademographic subset, such as all adult males) contribute to the decisionoutcome.Partiallyshareddecisionsare‘littleshared’iffewmemberscontributeand ‘widely shared’ if many contribute. There is a logical continuum fromunshared, via partially shared, to equally shared decisions.
Public information sampling:
members of a group observe the behaviour of other members and glean information (e.g. about foraging rates or breedingsuccess) to make individual decisions (e.g. about leaving or staying).
minimum number of group members that need to take or favour aparticular action for the whole group to adopt this action. In principle, thequorum could be a majority, sub-majority (less than a majority) or super-majority (more than a majority) of members. In practice, animals are likely todetermine whether a quorum has been reached by estimating the relativenumerousness of members contributing to the quorum, often by relying onindirect cues.
individual group members follow local behaviouralrules,resultinginorganizedbehaviourbythe wholegroupwithout theneedforglobal control.
agroupinwhichmemberscancommunicateglobally(i.e.withallother group members).
Unshared consensus decision:
one particular group member (e.g. thedominant) makes the decision on behalf of all group members. All othermembers abide by this decision.
different group members lead group actions on differentoccasions.
an animal communicates its individual preference with regard to thedecision outcome.
Conradt, L. (L.Conradt@sussex.ac.uk). Available online 2 June 2005
TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution
Vol.20 No.8 August 2005
2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2005.05.008