Inc – The Idiocy of Crowds

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I don't read Inc magazine that often, but I do love this month's "What Next?" column on The Idiocy of Crowds. Author David Freeman makes some fantastic points.

As far back as 1972, in his now classic book, Victims of Groupthink, Yale psychology researcher Irving Janis theorizes that groups often breed a false confidence that leads to unsound decisions none of the individuals in the group would have made on their own. In the 1990s, research by Purdue psychology researcher Kip Williams shed light on "social loafing"–that is, the tendency of people in groups simply to not try as hard as individuals. In fact, the notion that individuals outthink and outdecide groups is so well established among experts that they don't bother to study it anymore. Instead, the hot question among psychologists and organizational behaviorists is why the rest of us persist in keeping this wrong-headed notion alive. "We've been trying to find out what seduces us into thinking teams are so wonderful," says Natalie Allen, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario who has studied what she calls "the romance of teams."

We've heard this one before, and people will try to counter it. They will say that you assign a devil's advocate, that you run your group a certain way, yada yada. But they will ignore the fact that for most types of applications, the "wisdom of crowds" fails.

More from the article…

Consider that paragon of group magic, the brainstorming session. Bernard Nijstad, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, explains that if you take a group of 12 people and have half brainstorm together on a topic while the other six go it alone, all 12 will usually agree that the group experience was more productive–even though those working alone almost always end up with more good ideas. Nijstad believes it's because people in groups spend most of their time listening to others rather than thinking on their own, while lone brainstormers are forced to stew in productive but unpleasant silence. "When you're alone, it's painfully clear when you're not producing. In a group you can just sit there and not notice you're not contributing," Nijstad says. No wonder we love to work in groups.

Things only get worse when a team is charged with actually making a decision. One of the biggest problems is that it's easy for a few members of a group who think the same way–but who may be flat-out wrong–to sway the opinions of others. Consensus steadily grows until a majority is reached, at which point even people who have confidence in their dissenting, higher-quality opinion are likely to bow to the group. If you've ever wondered how Enron's managers could have convinced themselves they were running a good company, or how a jury could have found O.J. Simpson innocent, now you know. Of course, you could bring independent thinkers to your groups–but then you'll run into the problem of deadlock. "About half of all groups don't reach any conclusion at all," says Nijstad.

Yes, I've seen the IDEO video about how they collaborate and have brainstorming sessions. And yes they are a successful company, but would they better if they also encouraged individual brainstorming? (Maybe they do – I don't know) After all, Einstein didn't get together with a group of friends and discover relativity. He thought – alone. So did Newton. So do lots of designers. So do lots of writers. If Warren Buffett is right when he says that "conventional wisdom is often long on convention and short on wisdom," then why would we want to tap into the wisdom of the crowds? It's so conventional. That's why Wikipedia is great for general high level overviews, but lousy for most specific information.

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So why is wisdom of crowds so successful? Because it is easy. There are times to use experts, there are times to use crowds, there are times to use small groups, there are times to do things on your own. Most people probably don't want to sit down and analyze their problem to figure out which approach might make the most sense. Most people probably don't want to take the time to understand the pros and cons of different approaches. The business-by-popular-idea school is currently exalting the wisdom of crowds. Sooner or later they will realize that replacing old fads with new ones with never solve their problems.