Odysseus returns Chryseis to Her Father. Painted by Claude Lorrain, circa 1644

Like other species, we humans search for the resources we need and want. We sort through information to find food, shelter, jobs, and romantic partners. Through much of our evolutionary history, we searched in environments of scarcity, and we needed strategies to gather costly information.

Now, we have access to overwhelming amounts of information. We need strategies to sort through the abundance.

“There is a lot of work on foraging and search in other animals, but it’s hard to study empirically in humans,” says External Professor Elizabeth Bruch (University of Michigan), who has analyzed data from online dating sites to study how people search for mates through the internet.

Bruch is helping to coordinate an upcoming SFI ACtioN meeting to explore how organizations can benefit from research into people’s modern search and decision-making processes. Also of interest is how academics could benefit from the troves of data being collected by firms, government agencies, and other NGOs.

The meeting, held April 25 at Google Venture, brings together an eclectic group of academics and business people, from people who study ancient forms of navigation, to those looking at outer space exploration, to those involved in searches for housing and partners.

“I study human behavior as observed in online environments,” says Bruch. But that work is only possible through partnerships with the companies who own the data. “As a researcher, I can collect data, but it’s hard to replicate the natural environment of 4 million people using a dating site.”

That access to data can help social scientists better understand how people make different types of decisions; if a search for, say, housing looks different from a search for mate; and if a person in a large city chooses a different strategy from someone living in a smaller town.

“In these proprietary data sets, we can see everything that is logged,” says Bruch. “You see the searches that didn’t work, and you can see how people revised to find a successful search.”

These collaborations have a practical application, too: companies operating search engines or dating websites could help people find what they’re looking for if they had a better understanding of how humans search and how our search process is evolving.

“New datasets generated by online searches are re-energizing this area of study, but search has always been an important component aspect of complexity science,” says Will Tracy, VP for Applied Complexity. “This meeting should be useful for both SFI scientists interested in search, and ACtioN members whose operations are being impacted by new forms of online search. Ideally, some of the themes introduced in this meeting will be further developed in the Complexity of Retail ACtioN meeting planned for summer 2019 and the November Symposium on New Complexity Economics.”

More information about this and other upcoming ACtioN meetings can be found at santafe.edu/AppliedEvents