Accurate decisions in an uncertain world: collective cognition increases true positives while decreasing false positives
In a wide range of contexts, including predator avoidance, medical decision-making and security screening, decision accuracy is fundamentally constrained by the trade-off between true and false positives. Increased true positives are possible only at the cost of increased false positives; conversely, decreased false positives are associated with decreased true positives. We use an integrated theoretical and experimental approach to show that a group of decision-makers can overcome this basic limitation. Using a mathematical model, we show that a simple quorum decision rule enables individuals in groups to simultaneously increase true positives and decrease false positives. The results from a predator-detection experiment that we performed with humans are in line with these predictions: (i) after observing the choices of the other group members, individuals both increase true positives and decrease false positives, (ii) this effect gets stronger as group size increases, (iii) individuals use a quorum threshold set between the average true- and false-positive rates of the other group members, and (iv) individuals adjust their quorum adaptively to the performance of the group. Our results have broad implications for our understanding of the ecology and evolution of group-living animals and lend themselves for applications in the human domain such as the design of improved screening methods in medical, forensic, security and business applications.