How a flock of birds can help solve complex healthcare market research challenges

Views & Analysis
How a flock of birds can help solve complex healthcare market research challenges

Bilal Babar from THE PLANNING SHOP tells us how the movement of birds and Swarm Technology have helped develop multiple market research tools.

Flocks of birds wheeling, swooping and gliding in unison, as if choreographed, are a wonderful sight.

The benefit to members of the flock are many including safety from predators, more eyes to spot food and natural selection – those that can’t keep up or fly in a very densely populated flock and make such sharp turns without colliding don’t survive.

However, how birds such as shore birds, starlings, pigeons, ducks and migrating songbirds fly so well in flocks has puzzled scientists for centuries. Early theories on how birds work together are just as interesting as the spectacle itself. The Romans believed the size and shape and movement of flocks of birds hinted at what the Gods intended to do. Scientists of the early 20th century theorised that ‘natural telepathy’, or a ‘group soul’ or a ‘biological radio’ allowed birds to fly in such unison.

So, how do they do it?

One explanation was that when the birds see a predator, they all move in the opposite direction in what scientists* refer to as a ‘Selfish Herd Phenomenon’. The Selfish Herd Phenomenon explained many of the flock motion related behaviours (density and unison movement), but it didn’t explain how all the birds see the predator at the same time.

One clue came from observing fish (fish are easier to study as they can be kept in a tank). The scientists observed that fish watch and follow their neighbouring fish movements, and together they can dodge a predator even when only a handful of fish see the predator – a thousand pairs of eyes on a watch for predators is better than one. To make sense of fish or bird movements three rules were developed in the 1980s:

  • Avoid colliding with your neighbour
  • Be attracted to flying or swimming with others of your species
  • Move in the same direction as the group.

These rules were later refined when it was observed that birds must also predict the sudden changes in the movement of the flock to be able to react to it quickly enough – known as the ‘Chorus Line Hypothesis’.

“You can build a flock of physicians, and the flock develops an optimal story that satisfies the flock overall. Each physician in the flock therefore contributes to the focus of the message”

This theory has been further refined (especially by those currently working on the StarFLAG project) as it appears that an individual bird observes the movement of six-seven birds immediately around them and reacts to their movement. They do this using sight and sound and by having other birds close to them on each side, above and below while allowing enough space directly ahead of them to give them room to react. However, much is still unknown even though we have come very far, and scientists believe we will soon be able to explain such mysteries even further.

At THE PLANNING SHOP we have studied a flock’s behaviour (as part of studying Swarm Intelligence in general) and this helped us to develop multiple market research tools for helping our clients develop strong brands. One of these tools is used in message testing and we call it ‘The Flock of Birds Algorithm’.

Message testing and The Flock of Birds Algorithm

Clients regularly ask us to help them with message testing – testing messages with key stakeholders (physicians, patients) before they launch a new brand, or relaunch an existing brand so that they can go to market with the optimal communications. The Flock of Birds Algorithm solves a very complex and long running problem in message testing i.e. developing a short and compelling brand story (which is often an important objective in message testing studies).

To develop a compelling story the research needs to provide the following three things:

  1. What are the most compelling messages (top performing messages)?
  2. How many messages should there be (length of the story)?
  3. What is the right order of messages (flow of the story)?

Mathematically these three goals create a very complex problem to solve. If you only had 20 messages to test, there could still be over 24 quadrillion possible different stories. Therefore, it is no wonder that physician stories are often quite different. As insight experts, the number of different stories can be problematic as we are left still wondering what optimal brand story would resonate well across all physicians. However, The Flock of Birds Algorithm can handle this problem very well, as we are able to build a flock of physicians, and the flock develops an optimal story that satisfies the flock overall. Each physician in the flock therefore contributes to the focus of the message story.

This means that our final story flow can be based on a set of rules derived from the ‘Selfish Herd Phenomenon’, ‘watching their neighbours’ behaviour and the ‘Chorus Line Hypothesis’, just like a flock of birds twisting and turning in flight.

Swarm Intelligence and other market research applications

The intelligence animals use is fundamental to their survival. Different animals use different methods that have been tried and tested through millions of years of evolution, and there are many things we can learn from animals and apply directly to market research. Let’s look, for example, at Honeybees.

Honeybees work together as a group to solve very complex problems e.g. finding their next hive.

Honeybees almost always find the best hive out of the many potential hives they could have. It’s a complex multivariable problem, especially as there are many things to consider e.g. distance from the nearest flowers/nectar, distance from the nearest fresh source of water, how exposed the hive is, weather conditions etc. Humans would struggle to find the optimal solution in this situation, even with the size of our brains.

At THE PLANNING SHOP we incorporate learnings from animal behaviour in our research methodologies. The learnings can be as simple as the way respondents indicate their preference during a survey, or, as complex as a statistical algorithm to find the optimal solution from our findings. We’ve found that applying Swarm Intelligence to different types of research methods e.g. advert testing, product testing, communications testing etc. has proved to be very valuable.

*The three notable biologists who have contributed towards our understanding of flocks are William Hamilton (who first coined the term “selfish herd”), Dmitrii Radakov (who tested behaviour of fish in a tank) and Wayne Potts (who proposed “chorus line hypothesis” theory).

About the author

Bilal BabarBilal Babar is a data science expert at THE PLANNING SHOP. Bilal has a keen interest in understanding human decision making and has several years of experience of developing and mathematically implementing inspiring technologies in the pharmaceutical market research industry.


THE PLANNING SHOP is an insight-led brand and communications consultancy of choice for the healthcare industry, with offices in the US and UK.

We dig deeper, go further and challenge perceptions to generate the insight-led business solutions pharmaceutical companies need to grow successful healthcare brands.