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The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

February 3rd, 2005 · 4 Comments

Read the Cliff Notes.

In other words: I was disappointed by this book. After reading Liz Lawley’s piece social consequences of social tagging (including this quote On the other hand, I don’t share the optimism that so many of my colleagues in this field seem to have that the collective “wisdom of crowds” will always yield accurate and useful descriptors.) I was eager to discover James Surowiecki’s thesis and to know why the many are smarter than the few as the subtitle of his tome The Wisdom of the Crowds claimed.

His theme was a simple one. Here’s my summary: Crowds are wise when people are independent thinkers, people have diverse perspectives, and when everyone can participate in the decision process. Of course, these groups will make wise choices. But as I walk through downtown on a given day and try to negotiate the parking lot or see a group of teen guys jeer one of their own, I don’t agree that the many are smart. I confess I read the book quickly, even skimming some of the end section. But Surowiecki’s book seemed to be an attempt to prove his hypothesis true in a variety of different situations. It felt a bit to me like bending. It was a confusing read for me.

I liked the chapter on science, examining how collaboration has been established and beneficial. I did appreciate his pointing out that CEOs are worshipped because we believe experts have answers. It was also interesting to see how having one dissenting voice in a group would change how others reacted. We impact each other because we are sensitive to each other’s decisions and also to other’s perceptions of ourselves. However if one is committed to being an independent thinker, this book will only reinforce that belief.

I do believe that this book has implications for blogging, especially if bloggers only read those who have similiar opinions, or if bloggers drown out other smaller voices. The Wisdom of Crowds convinced me to continue reading those with whom I don’t agree and to try to look out for voices that may not be as loud as others.

What Surowiecki failed to include in his calculations, I believe, was the human need for leaders and experts. I think people often want a leader, one man or woman, in many situations. People want to trust one person not a group. Would we vote for multiple people to be our president? I think this is an innate psychological wiring reinforced by experience.

How can we change society to work in wiser groups rather than as individual experts? How can we change our mindsets for what we desire? And do we even desire to have groups that are diverse and listen to each other rather than making assumptions? My fear is that as a society we seek comfort and confirmation in homogenity; we no longer value diversity or listen to the smaller voices. My fear is that we’ve lost our ability to be wise as crowds.


the important thing about groupthink is that it works not so much by censoring dissent as by making dissent seem somehow improbable. …
…Having even one other person in the group who felt as they did made the subjects happy to announce their thoughts, and the rate of conformity plummeted.
Ultimately diversity contributes not just by adding different perspectives to the group but also by making it easier for individuals to say what they really think.
p 76

Independence doesn’t mean isolation but it does mean relative freedom from the influence of others. If we are independent, our opinions are, in some sense, our own. We will not march to death in a circle just because the ants in front of us are doing so.

….Independence is important to intelligent decision making for two reasons. First, it keep the mistakes that people make from being correlated…..[…]…Second, independent individuals are more likely to have new information rather than the same old data everyone is familiar with. The smartest groups then, are made up of people with diverse perspectives who are able to stay independent of each other…..p.80

Paula Stephan quoted “Scientists who collaborate with each other are more productive, often times producing “better” science than are individual investigators.” p 316

A similiar study by Harriet Zuckerman, which compared forty-one Nobel laureates with a sample of similarly placed scientists, found that the laureates collaborated more often than regular scientists. p 317

What allows this strange blend of collaboration and competition to flourish is the scientific ethos that demands open access to information. This ethos dates back to the origins of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century….

If anything, in fact, the more a piece of knowledge becomes available, the more valuable it potentially becomes, because of the wider array of possible uses for it.
p 324 – 325

NASA employees today are far more likely to have come to the agency directly out of graduate school, which means they are also far less likely to have divergent opinions. That matters because, in small groups, diversity of opinion is the single best guarantee that the group will reap benefits from face-to-face discussion…..

This doesn’t mean that the ideal jury will follow the plot of TWelve Angry Men, where a single holdout convinces eleven men who are ready to convict that they are all wrong. But it does mean that having even a single different opinion can make a group wiser….p. 358

What Keynes recognized is that what makes the stock market especially strange is that often investors are concerned not only just with what the average investor thinks but with what the average investor thinks the average investor thinks. And the truth is: Why stop there? Maybe what you need to think about is what the average person thinks the average person thinks the average person’s view is. p 484

Tags: books

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dr. Ernie // Feb 3, 2005 at 7:43 am

    Thanks for the summary. I try to integrate the idea of diversity with collaboration in a concept I call Normalization:

    Relative value
    is best determined
    by honest collaborative inquiry
    into competing alternatives

  • 2 Richard // Feb 3, 2005 at 6:54 pm

    If Surowiecki were to address your examples of people parking cars or teens, he would point out how heterogeneous they are. (Car-owners. Teens. That said, your first example is a better example than the second.) Also, with regards to people driving in cars, his book sort of addresses your objection by effectively giving up on explaining why traffic patterns are so dumb. His hold chapter on the subject could have been summarized by saying “you know, traffic isn’t something that the Wisdom of Crowds theory explains very well”.

    Surowiecki would also address your objection that the human need for leaders and experts is false need, that leaders have been successful in convincing us that they are better decision makers or better with facts because they possess attributes (charisma, size, etc.) that are irrelevant. Also, he would probably say that we may *want* experts and leaders, but that we *shouldn’t* want them.

    Anyway, the point of the book is that there are dumb crowds and smart crowds, and that the smart crowds can not only be identified but the conditions for a smart crowd can be created.

  • 3 Lucy // Feb 4, 2005 at 6:37 am

    Sure, there are dumb crowds and smarts crowds and the conditions for smart crowds can be created. However, WILL they be created?

    I suspect a more likely scenario is that most crowds will continue to be only average, which in and of itself is a beautiful thing. As a culture I think we are so programmed to admire extreme success that we forget the desirability of consistent averageness (stability).

  • 4 Robert // May 27, 2005 at 11:37 am

    “I was disappointed by this book.”

    “The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki” – But it is interesting book. I read worse books.

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