Dwight Towers spotted this lovely article: bring the outliers inside. It’s based on the book Positive Deviance. Dwight picked out a lovely Nasrudin parable to illustrate how easy it is to miss the answers that are right before our eyes. There are some other real world examples where looking at outliers helps people – often with no status as entrepreneurs or inventors – to solve serious real world problems.
My eye was caught by the analysis of the relative capacity of magpies and robin to break open milk bottle tops and steal the cream. It seems that when foil tops were introduced, a few birds of both species figured out the solution. With robins it remained just the clever few. The explanation?
The contrast between robins and magpies is instructive. Robins are highly territorial, live comparatively isolated lives and vocalize primarily to demark their territory.
But millions of magpies caught on.
The magpie, by way of contrast, is highly social and leverages its intelligence accordingly. Magpies, with a brain-to-overall-body-weight ratio only slightly lower than that of humans, exhibit unusual levels of social awareness… Magpies are gregarious in winter, gather to roost at night and collect in rooks as large as 65,000 birds during mating season. They team up in bands to tease cats and dive-bomb predators. Demonstrating empathy and social altruism, cooperative breeding occurs from time to time, with additional adults helping to raise nestlings. Young magpies even play elaborate social games, including king of the mountain, passing sticks and sliding down smooth surfaces. They can work collectively to lift garbage bin lids as members take turns feeding. It was observed that one flock figured out how to crack nuts by placing them in crosswalks, letting passing cars break the husks, and waiting for the red light before safely retrieving the contents.
Big lesson there for humans. Possibly not for intellectual property fans.