Researchers Calculate the Point at Which Conflict Leads to Major Societal Changes

A team of researchers observed pigtail macaque monkeys to better understand a society’s “critical point.” Large groups of animals, such as flocks and schools, can become so sensitive that even a small conflict can lead to major changes in leadership and other roles. The findings are in a paper that was just published in the journal Nature Communications.

Scientists have long known that large cooperative groups of animals, including schools of fish, flocks of birds, and insect colonies, can reach a critical point in which chaos seems to break loose. In these events, a few seemingly minor conflicts can lead to huge brawls involving dozens of animals. After these fights, there is normally some amount of reconfiguration throughout the society—new leadership, changes to “rules,” or different group decisions. Researchers have been unable to determine exactly what causes these sudden changes. It appears that animal societies can reach a certain point in which the group dynamics become sensitive enough for major societal changes to occur.

Researchers from the ASU-SFI Center for Biosocial Complex Systems collaborated with a pair of scientists from the Santa Fe Institute to study the critical point in money societies. They observed a group of 48 captive pigtail macaque monkeys (Macaca nemestrina) and then used statistical models to try to calculate the critical point in their group. The team recorded fights and the number of monkeys that participated. They also recorded instances of monkeys “policing” or trying to break up fights. They compared this data to any social changes, such as new leadership. Their goal was to find a mathematical point at which a society becomes vulnerable to sudden critical changes.

The team found that animal societies are naturally closer to the critical point than one would imagine. Stressful situations, changing environments, and regular conflict will bring a society closer to the critical point. On the other hand, a predictable environment and individuals that attempt to prevent or police fights can move the society away from the critical point. If too many individuals simultaneously start conflicts it can easily tip the society past the critical point, leading to major societal changes.

The team’s findings provide new insights into how animal societies deal with change and disagreements in leadership roles. Every society appears to have a critical point; too much conflict during this time can lead to drastic changes in group roles. This allows for quick adaptability and flexibility as needed, especially in cooperative societies living in rapidly changing environments.


Daniels et al. Control of finite critical behaviour in a small-scale social system. Nature Communications (2017).

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