HoneyComb©: Emergence of Leadership: Leading and Following in Groups

Leadership in the honeycomb - the HoneyComb project at the University of Goettingen

Twelve people sit in front of computers. All nonverbl communcation is blocked by dividers and ear plugs prevent verbal communication. On the computer displays, black dots are moving around on a visual playfield. It is made up of hexagons and creates the impressio of a honeycomb. The players are participants in a psychological experiment at the University of Göttingen.


Together with her team, the social and communication psychologist Prof. Dr. Margarete Boos from the Georg-Elias-Müller-Institute of Psychology investigates how leadership behavior emerges in human groups. "The HoneyComb paradigm provides the excellent possibility to investigate how humans in groups lead and follow. Using this paradigm, we can block all channels of communication between participants and observe the isolated movement on the playfield. In this way, we can unearth simple patterns of behavior and mechanisms of coordination", Professor Boos explains.


The paradigm allows to investigate the basic mechanisms that underly the emergence of leadership. This is interesting not only for research but also on a societal level. Everywhere where interpersonal communcation is interrupted or difficult, these basic patterns of behavior might take over. For example, in large cowds verbal communcation might not be possible so that humans draw on more basic mechanisms, such as imitation. If there are additinal feelings of uncertainty, such as when exit paths are unknown to people, what will happen? This and many more questions could be answered on the basis of findings in the HoneyComb-project.


I many species patterns of leadership and followership have been discovered. The HoneyComb team is looking for mechanisms of leadership and followership as universal patterns, regardsless of culture and species. This would advance society as well as on the basis of these findings, group movement behavior might be better understood.





How is behaviour of individuals coordinated as a group? This is a fundamental question, encompassing phenomena such as bird flocking, fish schooling, and the innumerable activities in human groups that require people to synchronise their actions. If we acknowledge the biological continuity of coordination requirements the study of human and non-human primates gives us the opportunity to identify basic functions and mechanisms of group coordination and potentially illuminate unique aspects of coordination in human groups.

In cooperation with colleagues from other scientific disciplines (Biology, Psychology, Physics, Computer Science), we aim at describing mechanisms how groups synchronise and coordinate their behaviour. Our goal is the development of a model of group coordination which comprises process-related (e.g. communication) as well as structural (e.g. resources and ecological conditions) parameters.

We have developed an experimental paradigm, the HoneyComb© computer-based multi-client game, to empirically investigate human movement coordination and leadership. Using economic games as a model, we set monetary incentives to motivate players on a virtual playfield to reach goals via players’ movements.





HoneyComb 1HoneyComb 2



In the HoneyComb© paradigm,parameters can be varied. Players’ avatars can be represented in different sizes, colours, with varying ranges of sight and can be motivated by different incentives or information.

 In the following presentation some applications of HoneyComb are shown:



During an experiment, each participant controls a dot on a hexagon playfield with a mouse. The dot has twice the size of the co-players’ dots. All visual components are displayed in grey, black and white to avoid influences of colours. The dot can be moved by clicking into neighbouring fields. After each move, a small tail is shown for each player, pointing in the direction from which he or she hailed. These tails disappear after 4000 ms if players chose to delay their next move.

In the picture (above) the perspective of the player represented by the red avatar is shown. His/her sight is limited within a range of one hexagonal field around him/her. That means, the shaded dots are not visible to him/her. Here, two “minority” players receive a higher incentive than the other eight “majority” co-players: double versus one Euro on the outer left field (for a better view click on the picture). 



The two videos illustrate group movement in an experimental game conducted by Boos, Pritz, Lange and Belz (2014):





Video 1: Example of collective movement from the perspective of a "majority" player (for a better view use the "fullscreen" option by clicking on the two arrows).









Video 2: Example of collective movement from the same group – from perspectives of a "majority" player (right side) and a "minority" player (left side).












  • Boos, M., Kolbe, M., & Kappeler, P. (2011). Coordination in Human and Non-human Primate Groups: Why Compare and How? In M. Boos, M. Kolbe, Ellwart, T., & Kappeler, P. (eds.), Coordination in Human and Primate Groups. (pp. 3-10). Berlin Heidelberg: Springer.
  • Boos, M., Kolbe, M., & Strack, M. (2011). An Inclusive Model of Group Coordination. In M. Boos, M. Kolbe, Ellwart, T., & Kappeler, P. (eds.), Coordination in Human and Primate Groups. (pp. 11-35). Berlin Heidelberg: Springer.
  • Strack, M., Kolbe, M., & Boos, M. (2011). Dimensions of Group Coordination: Applicability Test of the Coordination Mechanism Circumplex Model. In M. Boos, M. Kolbe, Ellwart, T., & Kappeler, P. (eds.), Coordination in Human and Primate Groups (pp. 57-73). Berlin Heidelberg: Springer.