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.”