Can Bees Count?


From the annals of clever research designs:

A wonderful study was published last week in Science by Scarlett Howard, Adrian Dyer, and their colleagues at RMIT University in Melbourne. Here’s what they wanted to know:

Do bees understand zero?

Title of this post aside, it’s actually already been demonstrated that honey bees can count. But, understanding zero as a mathematical construct is something much bigger. From the NYTimes summary:

This is a big leap. Some past civilizations had trouble with the idea of zero. And the only nonhuman animals so far to pass the kind of test bees did are primates and one bird. Not one species, one bird, the famed African gray parrot, Alex.

The problem is that bees make terrible interview subjects, and aren’t big on math class either. So here’s what the researchers did. They placed small white squares, each of which had 1-4 black shapes printed on it, on a wall. Each had a small landing platform. Bees were then released into the enclosure, and some rewarded for landing on squares with more shapes, others for landing on squares with fewer.

Once the bees were trained, the researchers introduced a blank card (zero shapes). And with a drumroll: bees who had been trained to seek fewer shapes landed on it, while bees trained to seek more shapes avoided it.

What this shows is that bees understand that zero is a mathematical construct, a number lower than one that is part of a sequence of numbers. Moreover, the bees did even better when the zero card was paired with a high number (e.g., four or five) vs. a lower one (e.g., one or two). What this suggests is that bees understood numerical distance – that is, one is bigger than zero, but five is much bigger than zero.

Moreover, the bees were even able to distinguish between two unfamiliar numbers. In a final experiment, the researchers trained bees using cards with 2-5 black shapes, and then presented them with two brand new cards at the same time: one with one black shape, and one with zero. Again, bees that had been trained to seek fewer shapes preferred zero to one – meaning that they could carry their training into a completely new setting and order two novel numbers.

This degree of mathematical ability has actually never been observed in insects, and actually places bees on a level with “animals such as the African grey parrot, nonhuman primates, and even preschool children.”


Clutter Your Way to Creativity


 We'll keep with a theme this week: the spaces around us matter. And this bit of research,* published by a team from the University of Minnesota in Psychological Science, is worth paying attention to: it's an excuse to stop cleaning. Forever.

In a recent series of experiments, Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues set out to test the effect of desk and office cleanliness on productivity, creativity, and decision making. Subjects were first asked to fill out questionnaires in an office. Some did so in a prim and well-ordered space, while others did so in one cluttered supplies and strewn with papers. Afterwards, those in the clean office behaved in a more "pro social" fashion: they donated more money to charity when given the opportunity, and they grabbed apples rather than chocolate on their way out the door. 

But messiness has its advantages as well. In a second experiment, subjects were tasked with coming up with new uses for ping pong balls. Although the clean room subjects generated the same number of uses as those in the messy room, the latter group came up with ideas that were rated as more interesting and creative by a panel of two external judges. This creative bent also carried through in a third experiment, which found participants in a messy room to be more likely to prefer a novel smoothy flavor over the conventional one. The conclusion is that "disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights", while orderly environments "encourage convention and playing it safe."

None of this is exactly new, as there's apparently been an "anti-anticlutter movement" that's been singing the praises of crammed closets and messy desks for some years now. At the same time, it's always nice to see wishful thinking be put to the test. And if nothing else, it's a great excuse to put off cleaning your desk for another day.

 I can only assume it works for the dishes in the sink too. 


*Vohs, Kathleen D., Joseph P. Redden, and Ryan Rahinel. 2013. "Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity." Psychological Science. 


A Cardboard Palace

Back in June 2010 my department moved to a new home in the Huang Engineering Center,  the second building in Stanford's new state of the art Engineering quad. Not only did our new building differ from its predecessor in terms of termite resistance and earthquake code compliance, it also boasted an airy open office floor plan designed to boost collaboration and community among students.

Unfortunately, no one asked the students whether they actually WANTED to collaborate, and (as it turns out) most students simply want to put their heads down and be left alone. The result? On any given day, 80% of the desks in our new, social space sit empty. This "utilization rate" is well below typical levels, and it makes the prospect of commuting 1.5 hours to sit in a ghost town pretty unappealing.

This isn't ideal. It's a waste of capital and space (we could get by with 80% fewer desks), and it hinders the community and chance interactions that are so critical to creativity, innovation, and good research. Unfortunately, fixing the problem and meeting the needs of the hundred students that share the space isn't exactly easy.

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And that's what's given rise to the new cardboard village that's sprouted up in one of our atria. The new space (designed by consultants from Steelcase), seeks to meet all of these diverse student needs with flexible workspaces, sit-stand desks, and small multi-desk "studios" that will house various communities of practice while cutting down on overall noise. These flexible workspaces are the latest trend for a workforce that's increasingly mobile and has come to see long stints sitting in sterile offices as "our generation's smoking". The next few months will see increasingly "real" prototypes, until at some point we get kicked out, walls get thrown up, and we (eventually) move into our new home. Given the cost involved (and the politics), it won't be a fast process, but when the renovations are done they may greatly improve the quality of life (and research) in the building.

Fortunately for me, I'll probably still be here.


Does Entrepreneurial Experience Dim Future Job Prospects?

An early release of one of the papers to be presented at the Academy of Management this year shares a surprising, and not terribly positive, insight: having entrepreneurial experience on one's CV may substantially decrease subsequent responses to job applications. 

The study* sent paired fictitious resumes to real job postings in the UK. All "applicants" had experience and current employment in medium-sized firms, but differed in whether they had "owned and managed a small HR consulting company" vs. worked as a "project manager for consulting teams providing HR services." A total of 192 applications evoked 22 positive responses, where 6 were for applicants from the self-employed group and 16 were for wage earners. Of the 15 positive responses for male applicants, 12 went to wage earners and only 3 to self employed. The upshot: "having previously been self employed in in itself a negative signal on the job market."

It's one of thousands of papers (including my own) that will be presented at the Academy of Management this August. I'm excited to learn more.

 *Koellinger, P. et al. 2012. Self Employed But Looking: A Labor Market Experiment. SSRN Working Paper.