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.


  1. Hi David,
    There is a comfort to be a part of the mass – it’s easy to dodge the ownership being in a group. Standing alone is relatively tough, one has to face the consequences.

  2. Katha —
    Yes, you’re right there is comfort in the group — and also a necessary tamping down of wild thought and expectation and I’m sure that conservative effort to “go along” helps compress down the average guesses of the group to form a certain accuracy in the end.
    The danger in that group think is precisely what you warn against: Loss of self and a succumbing of personality in favor or bland fact finding.

  3. Right David, “group thinking” feels threatened by the idea of non-conformity, anything “outside the box”.
    It looks for “yes” – ists, group thinking can’t handle anything original.

  4. Katha —
    Yes, I guess Surowiecki would argue that’s the point of the group process — to self-edit and craft and edit the individual to get more of a center meme when it comes to determining facts light weights, temperatures and finding the shortest route between points A and B.

  5. One of the central points of Ayn Rand’s philosopy is the opposition of groupthink. Though I’m not 100% with her on everything, this is one thing I do appreciate and if you have ever read the novella Anthem it really pierces the heart of groupthink. Sometimes it takes one person to turn the world on its head.

  6. Well done, Gordon! I am a big Ayn Rand fan. She is quite brilliant and you mention her great book on this topic, too!
    I guess the thing that bothers me most is the idea of groups being “wise.” They are not. They may be able, together, to discern an average based on expectation and experience — but does that make them “wise” in any way?

  7. Your second comment was Akismitted, Gordon. I wonder why? Was it that link?!!
    That blog you mention makes me bonkers — just like the lolcats junque — so silly, so obvious, so rotten, so overtly boring AND SO VERY POPULAR!

  8. I guess anytime you become a part of something whether it be a marriage, a family, a community group, a work group, the challenge is never to lose yourself.
    It takes alot of guts to be yourself. It’s not as easy as it sounds. But Maslow would say those who are true to their inner selves are more fully actualized human beings.
    Howard Roark, The Fountainhead. This has to be my favorite book of all-time and I’m not easily pleased. I agree Ayn Rand rocks!

  9. dmtessi —
    Right! The challenge is to get along with others, and the selflessly help others while retaining autonomy.
    It is easier to go your own way in modern times, but 100 years ago if you didn’t have a “memeingful” group to abide you, it was likely you starved or lived on the street or never moved up in society.
    As society expands and technology advances, groups become less important in proximity, but their overall cohesive effect on us all can be stunning if managed right.

  10. There is also great danger in groupthink – take the Ohio and Texas primaries. There is solid evidence that thousands of votes went to Senator Clinton from staunch republicans who had interest in nothing other than making a mess of our primaries – and were encouraged to do so by Rush the Hutt – er, I mean, Limbaugh. His listeners seem to do whatever he says.

  11. Absolutely right, Gordon. I do not understand the power of the conservative radio hosts. I do not get their easy manipulation of the base mindset. It is upsetting that republicans can mess with the democrats in their primaries and get away with it. Why can’t those people think independently? What’s in it for them to “ditto” Rush?

  12. God would have to be pretty damn lonely. 🙂
    Anyway, in only rare cases does the individual wish to be alone. All judgment, thinking, guessing, etc. is going to be tempered by experience, which is social by nature, and therefore no one has purely independent thought. Being part of a group, or just having the desire to be part of a group (even a group of two or three) tempers all thought, I think. Group thought is often applied to those who do not spend any time thinking, and accept someone else’s thoughts as their own. That’s laziness, not group thought. Sometimes one’s thoughts coincide with the majority, because after all, we have been raised under similar conditions and exposed to similar facts and opinions. By the way, I think the experiments in group guessing have a flaw, in that, giving enough guesses, any individual’s average is also going to come out close to the actual fact. The experiments seem to only prove what averaging means.

  13. Thinking independently exposes your desires, your ways of seeing through events… not everybody is confortable with that.
    In a group, feelings like shame, guilt, responsability are “solved” like salt in water.
    I like little groups (little is relative…) or groups where I can manifest and breath my own individuality and my own way to be just one more human being in the crowd.

  14. O’Maolchathaigh —
    Your argument is interesting. Experience is formed by groups? How are you defining a group?
    Are we a group having this discussion or are we intrinsic individuals posting independent thoughts in an ongoing stream of singular consciousness?
    Isn’t thinking, by its nature, individualistic?
    I agree groups are good at guessing averages — but isn’t that by their design in order to consecrate the middle where no one is upset and everyone is anonymous?

  15. fcassis —
    I agree independent thought is dangerous because you test the moral core of the majority. You risk being pressed aside or even abandoned if you continue to think on your own.
    I find that groups need cudgels like shame and guilt and responsibility to coerce the letting go of individual behavior in favor of the massing.
    Without methods of exclusion one can never corral the independent behavior and make it part of the group cohesion.
    Are groups and crowds synonymous? Is a group of three people a crowd? If not, when is the numeric threshold met to create a crowd?

  16. I read your post with some excitement coming from a stance of self-organizing groups.
    For self-organization to work, as I understand it, we have a common interest (we are all at the market for something), then we have complementary (and self) interest (we buy or sell). We have ‘permission’ to innovate – so we knock out the fixed price shop or customer who has fixed list and price range. We have the opportunity to act collectively (obvious in a market but not in other organizations). And we get together frequently in this way.
    That leaves me some way away from the comments. My list seems similar to S’s list – complementarity, self interest, permission and action. I would also have some kind of boundary defining the scope of our mutual interest and the frequency of our actions.

  17. Experience is not formed by groups, but certainly few if any experiences we’ve had were not as part of a group, the country, culture, neighborhood, family, classroom, etc., so it is nearly impossible to separate one’s experiences from one’s group. Much so-called independent thought cannot be, unless you raised yourself alone in the wild without any social interactions of any kind. What is thought if not expressed in action or communicated to another? – meaningless. A “…design in order to consecrate the middle where no one is upset and everyone is anonymous?” sounds suspiciously like conspiracy theory. Not designed to do anything, by anyone. A group is simply a group. The people reading this blog, and/or leaving comments are a group. And, yes, aren’t we thinking along a certain path because it was suggested by the topic? Don’t we generally agree to stay on topic, because others groups have found that to be more useful? You seem to focus on the negative political condemnations of group thought, which opinions came from those political groups. Groups of people play games, make laws, build things, travel together, vote, work, etc. What is “singular consciousness”? How can one’s thoughts be all that different from those of the ones who share the same language? We may have understandings of things in our head, but we interpret them, and communicate them through language – a group effort. We are part of a large group of humanity. It is dissembling to try and believe that our thoughts arise independently in our brains, without input from the groups we interact with, which includes food gathered by others, ( maybe cooked too), reading, watching, interacting verbally and non-verbally. One can take singular action, but the idea to take that action didn’t just spring from nothingness. We think and act in response to our environment, and a major part of that environment is other people – groups of them. Independent thought is usually the minority opinion of the group being looked at, but it could be the major opinion of another group. Ayn Rands characters are intelligent and thought provoking, but learned their trades and talents from other people, the groups of people in their schools and communities, and in the accumulated knowledge of thousands of years of work and thought by other people. They did not create, for example, the entire fields of architecture, banking, art or anything else all by themselves, nor could they have created one thing were they not taught how by the group they are a part of.

  18. You make an interesting argument, O’Maolchathaigh, but I don’t cotton to the blanket argument that one is part of a group by default because you happen to be passing by or are in the vicinity of those who want to rope you into their thinking.
    The traditional idea of a “group” isn’t a genus or a race or a culture — membership in groups is proactively gained to serve specific duties and interests and are ruled by restrictive meme niches in morality, politics and the economy. Groups are by definition momentary, convenient and fleeting. Societies are everlasting, groups are not.
    Group participation takes commitment and a decision to be a part of the group — or you only have the fallacy and the sheen of a fake group that lacks direction and cohesiveness.
    If one believes it is possible to “grouped” without being a part of the group and it is the very underpinning of that forced “group thinking” that because we are together, we are one — and that is what dooms groups to failure as W.R. Bion argues.

  19. Depends on the group. A group of mathematicians here solved an old math puzzle that had defied the best mathematical minds for centuries. I think, however, that you are buying into the argument that a group is only something you join for a specific goal, thereby proving that the group is populated by people who couldn’t accomplish the same goal by themselves. Defining a group as only one thing and then analyzing only that of kind of thing is putting the conclusion before the research.
    I observe that just because one is part of a group does not mean one joined it, or that one becomes part of a group-think just by being in a group. By that thinking, there is no value in schools, universities, corporations, political parties, unions, orchestras, bands, or team sports. I guess they have all failed.
    I wasn’t speaking of passing by a group of people, but the groups of people you talk and work and play with on a regular basis, as well as one’s family. One may not have joined these, to join a group, but find they are part of group involved in similar activity, interacting daily, and influencing each other. It doesn’t mean there is group thought, but commonality of purpose does tend to give one common thoughts. What is done with those thoughts is something else. No group is doomed to fail because it’s a grouping. W.R. Bion sounds like an idiot.

  20. I didn’t call anyone here a name. Because an author is respected, I don’t believe that means I have to. I didn’t call him an idiot anyway. Based on what you mentioned of Bion’s thoughts, my opinion is that those thoughts sound idiotic. He may not be an idiot. I know of many people who attempt to make a name for themselves by “discovering” some law or dynamic, when all they have done is try to extend their observations of a small sampling of people onto all of humanity. That sounds idiotic to me.

  21. OK. Bad choice of a word. One thing: I missed a key word above, that might have made me more favorable to Mr. Bion – “generally”. In your Why Groups Fail article, you say: “W. R. Bion generally suggests groups are always calculated to fail.” I missed that, even though it is in the quote box. I selectively, and wrongly, only read above, “…who felt groups, by their vary nature of absorbing individualism, were doomed to fail because of their repressive nature.”
    That snippet of wisdom made me feel that Bion might exhibit a pedantic and dogmatic anti-intellectualism. I used a simpler word to express my feelings on the matter.

  22. I think the simplest answer is that crowds can be manipulated, which in turn a strong willed individual can control and use for his our her own purposes. It’s the essence of politics. If the crowd is devoid of wisdom and values they can be a very dangerous tool in the hands of an unscrupulous person. This is why the perfect safeguard against this for individuals to have a strong moral footing. Otherwise tyranny will rule!

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