Want to Get Out Alive? Follow the Ants

Conor Myhrvold in Nautilus:

PanicSome animals evolved to clump together when threatened because it increased their chances of survival. “Predators have the ability to focus and concentrate on individual prey,” says Ralph Tollrian, a professor in Germany who has spent his career studying the predator confusion effect. “When they handle one prey, they can’t hunt the next.” Birds and fish form groups that move chaotically in the presence of a predator, giving it “cognitive overload,” says Randy Olson, who builds computer models of predator and prey behavior at Michigan State University. The predator’s cognitive overload can be so strong that it may give up on its pursuit entirely. “A confused predator can sometimes become frustrated and not hunt at all,” Tollrian says.

Humans, too, developed a tendency to clump together in the face of danger. There are many advantages to that, Tollrian says—from defense (it’s easier for a group to fight off a threat) to safety in numbers (people can hide in a crowd). When humans moved to agrarian and urban lifestyles, our dangers changed—but our responses didn’t, says Randolph Nesse, a professor of psychiatry at Arizona State University who studies the evolutionary reasons behind anxiety. “We continue to be afraid of things that were dangerous to our ancestors,” Nesse says. When we panic, ancient instincts kick in. In a room with six exits, it seems like the most logical course of action would be for the crowd to divide evenly among all six. Instead, we stampede to just one. We disregard logic and get injured. While we may not be able to unlearn our instincts, we might circumvent them if we better understand the nature of escape panic. Since studying panicking humans is difficult, scientists are turning to an unexpected source of inspiration: ants. “Humans and ants are hugely different animals,” says physicist Ernesto Altshuler at the University of Havana, Cuba, who studied how ants escape in emergency situations. “But when you are in panic, humans behave in a very elementary way, and we may look a little bit like ants.”

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