Parallel Work and Parallel Play

Fred Adler (March 14, 2011)

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In human children, parallel play describes two or more children playing side by side, perhaps using the same toy but for different purposes, and only occasionally modifying their behavior in response to the other. It forms an early stage of social development, following solitary play and generally preceding social and cooperative play.

If a group of ants were overseen by an extremely scientific teacher, how would he or she classify their interactions? I will address this question by studying models of three long-term interactions within and between ant colonies.

1. Ants must allocate effort among tasks such as foraging in different spatial locations, and do so based on information about what others, including nearby competitors, are doing.
2. Ants may need to choose conflict strategies to deal with neighbors of different species with different behaviors and fighting abilities, but without prior knowledge of who they will encounter.
3. Ants must choose strategies to compete with nearby or distant neighbors, potentially acting more or less aggressive toward members of familiar colonies.

Individuals can only base decisions on what they know, whether shaped by personal experience or shared information, ideally contributing to the long-term success of their colony. I will examine how well ants can regulate foraging and conflict with only limited information, and discuss when the resulting behaviors can be considered a coordinated strategy by the colony rather than "parallel work" by socially unsophisticated individuals.