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The Study of Behavioral Decision-making and Collective Action at Princeton University

An Interdisciplinary Program

Behavior is perhaps the most flexible part of an animal’s phenotype since it enables individuals to cope with rapidly changing environments. Yet understanding why individuals make the decisions that they do, and how these shape the actions of others within their societies, populations and communities remains an exciting challenge. Today new observational, experimental and theoretical tools are emerging that can help meet this challenge and help provide both a functional and mechanistic understanding of how particular decisions are made and how complex behavior emerges from individual decisions.

Faculty in Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, along with colleagues in the Neuroscience Institute, Psychology and various Engineering Departments, are well positioned to mentor graduate students that want to study decision-making and how actions at one level shape the behavior of higher levels of organization. Studies range from determining how collective actions among locusts emerge from the movements of individuals to produce mass migrations that devastate landscapes, to identifying the decisions individual zebras use to organize themselves into herds whose size, composition and shape varies, to how coalitions of baboons or humans evolve social strategies of cooperation and the social norms that sustain them.  Although each has a unique focus, they are all have a common theme—the search for simple rules that account for the emergence of complex behavior. New tools involving animal tracking and individual recognition software; the use RNA activity in brains as well as social and neural network analysis are providing new lens for looking closely at these problems.

students putting radio collar on Zebra
ZebraNet project. Students collaring a zebra for tracking. Photo credit: Dan Rubenstein

The following EEB groups focus on decision-making, collective action and the evolution of cooperation:

Jeanne Altmann • cooperation and investment strategies in baboons
Simon Levin • the evolution of cooperation and social norms
Dan Rubenstein • social and movement ecology of zebras and other herbivores and humans; social network analyses.
Corina Tarnita •  evolutionary game theory and the effect of the population interaction structure on individual and collective outcomes

The following Princeton faculty also research with substantial interests in collective action of agents:

Naomi Leonard • collective behavior in animal groups (fish schools); decision dynamics in mixed teams of humans and robots
Asif Ghazanfar • studies the neurobiology and behavior of monkey agents as way of understanding the evolution and function of the human brain and social behavior 
Deborah Prentice • social influence and intergroup relations. I am especially interested in the ways in which social norms, beliefs, and values influence people's perceptions and behaviors in social contexts
Joshua Shaevitz • quantitative measurement of animal behavior from flies to humans

Satellite imagery of movement of a group of livestock
Image depicts the movement of a group of livestock over a landscape as shown from satellite imagery over 3 consecutive days. Image: Dan Rubenstein
Ant simulation
Ant simulation is an agent-based model of ant foraging in whch individuals lay two trail pheromones (chemicals). The ants can collectively form an efficient network between the lest (left) and resources (right) even though individuals act locally with very simple rules. Photo: Iain Couzin
tadpole swimming in a swarm
Tadpoles, Spea multiplicata, swimming in a swarm. Photo: Iain Couzin