How Wise Is the Crowd?

lego crowd

Remember the TV program Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? I’m not sure if it is still on the air, but one of the features was that a participant could use lifelines. He could call a person he thought might know the answer to a question. He could also ask the audience. The latter is all about what became known as the wisdom of crowds.

Years ago, when I was teaching at a university, I used the book The Wisdom of Crowds. The author is James Surowiecki who started the book in his “Financial Page” columns for The New Yorker. His main idea was that it went against the commonly held belief that we (Americans) generally don’t trust what the masses have to say. We don’t like groupthink. We think that things that are extremely popular (books, movies, music..) must somehow not be that great.  Are the great novels, the lasting literature the ones on the top of the bestseller lists? Not usually.

In the book, it says that the TV studio audience of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is correct 91% of the time. Surowiecki says that “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.”

According to the show’s rules, “The Contestant asks the studio audience which answer they believe is correct. Members of the studio audience indicate their choices by pressing the key on their keypad corresponding to the correct answer. The Contestant will receive the results of the studio audience vote.”

The contestant also has “Phone-A-Friend” where you call a pre-arranged friend.  Maybe you have a friend with expertise on that question. Compared to that 91% score from the audience, the “experts” guess correctly only 65% of the time.  Still, people often trust supposed experts. That makes the idea of the wisdom of the crowd somewhat counter-intuitive.

The book’s examples include problems that involve cognition, coordination, and cooperation in real situations, like driving in traffic, competing on game shows, maximizing stock market performance, voting, or designing an Internet search engine.

In general, he believes that a wise crowd’s “collective intelligence” will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts, if they can meet certain conditions.

The crowd needs to have a diversity of opinions. It needs to get different information. Members need to be independent of members from one another so that one strong leader doesn’t dominate. You need decentralization so that errors are balanced by others. Finally, you need a good method for aggregating opinions so that all opinions are included in the decisions. On the TV show that is done with anonymous electronic voting.

I think those conditions for crowdsourcing answers and accessing the wisdom of crowds is a decent model for a working group. Would it work in a classroom? How about with a large group of family members? It might be difficult to get all those conditions in those other settings.

We have heard more than a few times in recent years when discussing Congress, the Senate, and the voting public that the Founding Fathers did not trust the crowd. James Madison and the Founders deliberately designed a government that would resist what they considered to be “mob rule.” The crowd was not wise at all.

“Madison’s reading convinced him that direct democracies—such as the assembly in Athens, where 6,000 citizens were required for a quorum—unleashed populist passions that overcame the cool, deliberative reason prized above all by Enlightenment thinkers. ‘In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason,’ he argued in The Federalist Papers, the essays he wrote (along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay) to build support for the ratification of the Constitution. ‘Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.’
…What would Madison make of American democracy today, an era in which Jacksonian populism looks restrained by comparison? Madison’s worst fears of mob rule have been realized—and the cooling mechanisms he designed to slow down the formation of impetuous majorities have broken.”

Free Will, Regret and the Choice Engine

choices of doors

While I was on vacation earlier this month,  I had a few “heavy” talks with a friend who was with us. At one point we got into a discussion of regrets. My philosophy is no regrets. I think regrets hurt our present and future. I’m a believer in the idea that if you change one thing in your past, you change everything that follows. And I am not unhappy with my present and changing something in the past that I wasn’t happy about would move me out of this present.  Yes, changing something might make my present better in some ways,  but there’s no guarantee of that positive result.

Of course, this is all a thought experiment since we can’t change the past. That only happens in science-fiction.

Are you reading this article because you chose to? Or are you doing so as a result of forces beyond your control? That is how an article I read this past week about free will and regrets begins.

Tom Stafford is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield who studies learning and decision making. “The Choice Engine” is an “interactive essay” about the psychology, neuroscience and philosophy of free will.

How and why do we choose? Are our choices free, or determined by things like our past, our brains or our environment? Are our choices ours?

Studies have shown that people who believe things happen randomly and not through our own choice often behave much worse than those who believe in free will. That makes sense. If you don’t think you have a choice in the matter, then what-the-hell is the difference?

There is a simple example given using an insect to illustrate. When a female digger wasp is ready to lay her eggs, she hunts down a cricket or similar prey, paralyses it with a sting, drags it back to the lip of her burrow, and then enters to check for blockages. If you move the cricket a few centimetres away before she re-emerges, she will again drag it to the threshold and again leave it to check for blockages. She will do this over and over. The wasp has no free will – no choice in the matter. The digger wasp has become an example for biologists of determinism.

Determinism is the idea that what we think of as a “choice” is in fact a path dictated by pre-existing factors.  I don’t subscribe to that philosophy.

“I’m no wasp,” you might say. “My choices are my own. Freely made.” But these neuroscience-of-decision-making people seem to think that sophisticated animal that we are, we are also trapped in behavior beyond our control. Free will is just an illusion.

I disagree.  Stafford, a cognitive scientist, disagrees.  I would like to believe that he is correct and that “… the evidence shows that most people have a sense of their individual freedom and responsibility that is resistant to being overturned by neuroscience.”

Stafford’s book, Mind Hacks: Tips & Tricks for Using Your Brain, has hacks/exercises that examines specific operations of the brain. They are a hands-on way to see how your brain responds and learn about the “architecture”of the brain. You can try to “Release Eye Fixations for Faster Reactions,” “See Movement When All is Still,” “Feel the Presence and Loss of Attention,” and “Understand Detail and the Limits of Attention.”

It is your choice whether or not to read the book.

The Art of Choosing

I am lucky that my college office is just off the library, so I get to browse books and looks at the “new titles”  shelf all the time.

A few week’s ago my gaze went to Sheena Iyengar’s The Art of Choosing which caught my attention by its title. It’s non-fiction which I find myself reading more and more lately. That is strange for someone who read almost entirely fiction for many years.

Confession: I feel much less guilty about skipping parts of non-fiction books than I do about skipping chapters of a novel. I may not actually “finish” this book, if finish means reading every page, but I will work my way through it and at some point be finished with it.

Iyengar is a psychologist and one thing familiar in this book is the idea that when we have either too many or too few choices, it can be harmful to us both mentally and physically.

Heard the expression “paralyzed with indecision?” The book looks at whether choice is  innate or bound by culture. Sometimes we make choices that go against our best interests, so how much control do we really have over what we choose?

A typical American supermarket offers 45,000 choices. offers me 24 million books. My cable system has hundreds of channels and my Netflix account offers hundreds of thousands of movies.  Is that good?  It hasn’t help me. There are  more choices than I can handle.

Iyengar set up some psych/business experiments about choices. She set up a tasting booth in a grocery store and alternated between offering samples of six and 24 flavors of jam. The table with 24 jams attracted more visitors but more people bought something from the table with only 6 samples to choose from. (30% purchased versus 3% at the 24 choices table)  That study got a lot of attention. (Malcolm Gladwell used it in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.)

It also reminds me of another book I read a few years ago by Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology, called The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.

But choices get far more serious than jam for your bread.

What about if you are faced with the choice of continuing or stopping life-sustaining treatment for your child?

Apparently, in some countries (like France) doctors take a paternalistic approach with patients by making such decisions for them. But, in America, our doctrine of “informed consent” puts more control – and choice – in the heads of patients.

Iyengar compared French and American parents of children who were removed from respirators and found that while the Americans struggled with guilt and resentment, the French were much more at peace with the decision to let their children die.

Why does this research get so much attention? Because Americans associate choice with individual liberty. It’s Locke, Mill, Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson. It’s an inalienable human right. Right?