Quentin de la Bédoyère is intrigued by a book which argues that crowds are wiser than individuals Ido not like crowds. I sense their potential to become a threatening, irrational, animal personality, to which, quite possibly, no single member of them thinking on his own would for a moment subscribe. When I was caught, entirely by mistake, in a sobbing crowd at the time of Princess Diana’s death, I could not bring myself to share in the general ecstasy of self-flagellation which surrounded me, but shrank away in shame in case anyone should assume my collusion in such maudlin antics.
So James Surowiecki’s book attracted my attention immediately. How could one write credibly on the wisdom of crowds, since it is an idea which is not only counter intuitive but approaches a contradiction in terms? But the Francis Galton story made me think. Galton, cousin to Darwin and unfashionable father of eugenics, attended a village fair in which the crowd of typical country folk were competing to make the best guess of the weight of an ox once it had been slaughtered and dressed. After the event Galton analysed all the voting slips submitted, and discovered that the average was the best guess of all – in fact, within a pound of the true weight.
Galton was taken aback: his contempt for democracy required that the judgment of ordinary people should be wildly inaccurate, but his computation showed that it was near perfect. Surowiecki cites several other examples. In quiz shows, for instance, where the contestant is allowed to choose help either from an expert friend or from the audience, the audience is not only right nine times out of ten, it is 40 per cent more accurate than the expert.
Given the received opinion that majorities are always likely to be wrong, since non conformists are typically more forceful, intelligent and well informed than the lumpen majority, we have a problem. The answer, Surowiecki argues convincingly, lies in the fact that there is a collective fund of knowledge in a crowd. Each of its members may have only a small scrap of that knowledge, but these multiple scraps can, under certain conditions, be combined into a truth.
Perhaps the most important condition is that the members of the crowd should be relatively independent. A collective opinion developed through debate does not have the same quality. But the ox-guessing crowd were all, so to speak, in competition with each other, since there would be only one winner. A second condition is that the crowd should be mixed: a group of experts is little better than a single expert, since the members are likely to share common training and common assumptions. But they should not be totally ignorant; thus Galton’s crowd would have consisted of a few experts and a large mass of country people who had at least a working knowledge of slaughtering and dressing large animals.
This is interesting but is it significant? There are some lines of thought to consider. For instance, Anthony Jay has suggested that a good problem solving group needs a range of personalities to be fully effective. Surowiecki’s implication is that one should also give weight to non-experts. It might be, for instance, that the humble housekeeper expressing her view at a discussion of top rank theologians could suggest an idea so wildly at variance with received opinion as to provide the makings of a wholly original solution. Given a hundred housekeepers, the average of the naive views could be invaluable. Perhaps something like this happened to me recently when a friend said: “Why would you expect the clergy to be any different? Men have always been the same: ultimately all they want to do is to hold on to power.” Simplistic? Possibly. A shard of truth? Certainly. Here we approach some of the methods which Edward de Bono puts for ward to stimulate lateral and creative thinking. This provides a good argument for ensuring diversity in any discussion of moment. Without doubt the National Pastoral Congress, held in Liverpool in 1980, was enriched by the broad lay participation. And its lack of long-term impact was arguably the result of the leaden hand of the expert central establishment.
And that brings us to other aspects of crowd behaviour which Surowiecki examines. The creativity and wisdom of crowds is endangered by too many assumptions, which so constrain the allowable range of solutions that radical approaches are excluded. Then the tendency of the majority of human beings to conformity leaves them vulnerable to the voice of influence and authority. Who has not attended discussion meetings in which the sheep follow Bo-Peep, leaving their brains behind them? And a group, small or large, is greatly influenced by the herd instinct; evolution has taught us that it is on the whole better to seek the safety of being with the crowd than to strike out on one’s own. Similarly, it is this tendency to conformity that leaves the crowd at the mercy of a handful of activists (benevolent or malevolent) who can imbue it with force that is essentially irrational.
At any moment, in any society, we can see this mob irrationality deciding our fashions, our politics, our value structures, and even how we distort established evidence. I do not doubt Surowiecki’s account of the wisdom of crowds, but I note with care the number of situations he records in which that wisdom was conspicuous by its absence.