I am My Own God, Centerless Grinding and Why Crowds are Not Wise

Crowds are not wise.

I realize my argument tempts the current notion of James Surowiecki’s book — The Wisdom of Crowds — where he writes:

As it happens, the possibilities of group intelligence, at least when it came to judging questions of fact, were demonstrated by a host of experiments conducted by American sociologists and psychologists between 1920 and the mid-1950s, the heyday of research into group dynamics.Although in general, as we’ll see, the bigger the crowd the better, the groups in most of these early experiments–which for some reason remained relatively unknown outside of academia–were relatively small. Yet they nonetheless performed very well. The Columbia sociologist Hazel Knight kicked things off with a series of studies in the early 1920s, the first of which had the virtue of simplicity. In that study Knight asked the students in her class to estimate the room’s temperature, and then took a simple average of the estimates.

The group guessed 72.4 degrees, while the actual temperature was 72 degrees. This was not, to be sure, the most auspicious beginning, since classroom temperatures are so stable that it’s hard to imagine a class’s estimate being too far off base. But in the years that followed, far more convincing evidence emerged, as students and soldiers across America were subjected to a barrage of puzzles, intelligence tests, and word games. The sociologist Kate H. Gordon asked two hundred students to rank items by weight, and found that the group’s “estimate” was 94 percent accurate, which was better than all but five of the individual guesses.

In another experiment students were asked to look at ten piles of buckshot–each a slightly different size than the rest–that had been glued to a piece of white cardboard, and rank them by size. This time, the group’s guess was 94.5 percent accurate. A classic demonstration of group intelligence is the jelly-beans-in-the-jar experiment, in which invariably the group’s estimate is superior to the vast majority of the individual guesses. When finance professor Jack Treynor ran the experiment in his class with a jar that held 850 beans, the group estimate was 871. Only one of the fifty-six people in the class made a better guess.

So when it comes to guessing at facts — the average of a group can pinpoint an answer — but does crowd wisdom begin or end at fact finding?

Is there a greater need — or a greater danger in, as Karl Popper previously warned us — in the “group think” mentality that stretches group memes beyond the generalization of facts and finding the shortest path between points?

Surowiecki’s thesis requires four things for a wise crowd — should the book be about the “wisdom” of crowds or rather the “accuracy of crowds in guessing amounts?”

  • Diversity of Opinion
  • Independent Thought
  • Non-Centralized Experience
  • Export/Propagation

Are any of those requirements realistic in today’s shattered societies? How does one quantify, and then guarantee, diverse opinions if people might change their notions in order to be included in the sample? Is independent thinking possible any longer? Are there any original ideas left to explore? If not, are we all not destined to repeat the thoughts, memes and dreams of our ancestors?

If so, to what end? Where do old notions lead us into the future? Non-Centralized Experience also seems to me to be a matter of achieving the impossible. As the world tightens and communication becomes instant and imitative — kids in Paris can text chat in real time with their friends in the USA — how can the notion of non-centralized anything be achieved?

We are all central to ourselves and to the core of our ever-changing, pressed together, groups. Exporting and sharing the “group decision” — culled from private imaginings into a group conclusion — is dangerous as well because only the majority mindset will rule the propagation.

Some might argue the majority mentality warns against outliers having too much importance in the group decision but, I argue, the very notion of cutting out the dissent of the wild idea and the presuming, independent notion, is what causes groups to crash into the middling instead of the precise.

Surowiecki would likely argue that is his point — all rough edges are shorn away and the pristine average is attached as fact — and I would counter that is the deadliness of his point. In my article — Why Groups Fail — I shared the learning of Wilfred Ruprecht Bion who felt groups, by their vary nature of absorbing individualism, were doomed to fail because of their repressive nature:

W. R. Bion generally suggests groups are always calculated to fail because of a forced sense of cohesion that is only a cover for competing individual internal desires “unspoken private motives sabotage the public group effort to preserve the self in society.”

If you are seeking generalization and fact-guessing, is it not better to trust the verity of your own gut, and not rely on the cohesion of a group of strangers to determine an outcome? Groups are made unwise by indecision and a want to create a non-threatening norm.

If we could each stand together apart and proclaim — “I am my own God!” — all would be precise in a fuzzy world as we realize the middle of us is ourselves, and the core of the universe is the undivided individual mind, set in contrast against the self, and selling the numbness of certainty in a centerless grinding.