Animal groups have pronounced variation in their collective order (or state), forming disordered swarms to highly polarized groups. Why such variation exists remains unclear. One explanation is that individuals face differential benefits or costs depending on the group’s order, but empirical evidence for this is lacking. Here we show that in three-spined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus), fish that are first to respond to an ephemeral food source are faster to do so when shoals are in a disordered, swarm-like state. This is because individuals’ visual fields collectively cover more of their environment, meaning private information is more readily available in disordered groups. Once social information becomes available, however, the arrival times of subsequent group members to the food are faster in more ordered, polarized groups. Our data further suggest that first responding individuals (those that benefit from group disorder) maintain larger differences in heading angle to their nearest neighbours when shoaling, thereby explaining how conflict over whether private or social information is favoured within groups can drive dynamic changes in collective behaviour.