Inc – The Idiocy of Crowds


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.

  • JohnH

    The problem with articles like this is that the only people that read them are ones that already know (for the most part) that it’s true. A wisdom of crowds believer will probably skip this page of the magazine.

  • The problem with articles like this is that they are full of crap. (Not your post Rob, the INC dope). You know I agree about the ignorance and craziness of crowds.)

    The author makes this sweeping claim, “The effectiveness of groups, teamwork, collaboration, and consensus is largely a myth” and then offers nothing that could be considered a real proof. He leaps to every conclusion. He doesn’t ask disconfirming questions.

    I’ll tell you why this author doesn’t like groups. The only time he’s the smartest person in the room is when he’s alone.

  • Here’s a relevant link on the “wisdom” of crowds (especially crowds who love a good conspiracy).

  • David G

    I also read this and was shocked how obvious it was that the author HAS NOT READ JS’s book. The article is totally redundant and actually makes the exact same point JS does — not all crowds are wise. JS however shows that diversity is a prerequisite for a crowd to be wise — this article tries to suggest that a few experts constitute a crowd — totally wrong.
    W.O.C. continues to be the most simple yet misunderstood concept in W2.0

  • Rob

    But what attracted me to the article is that I think most people misunderstand WOC too much the other way. They think that crowds are always better than individuals. It’s another case of people using solutions out of context.

  • David G

    You’re right Rob – it would have been useful if the author had taken that approach and discussed the prerequisite for a “wise crowd” but it probably wouldn’t sell as well – definitely the last time I waste money on Inc.

    My mind boggles at the thought of how misinformed I am about subjects I dont understand due to the MSM — if I didn’t understand W.O.C., Inc. magazine would have made me more stupid. I’ve seen too much of this lately — the MSM truly has very little credibility.

    The beauty of blogs is that they are written by journalists who understand their subject matter.

  • Rob

    I think that’s becoming less true though. In blogging’s early days it was as you said. But now that money is involved, and (some)people do it for money instead of passion or interest, it turns into a game of who can yell the loudest. It forces a sort of race to the bottom that is common with the MSM. Who can make the most outrageous talk show or reality tv show, etc.? It becomes less about honest discussion and inquiry and more about traffic at all costs.

    The other problem is that as blogging becomes mainstream and picks up “average” readers, how many of them can identify quality of thought? I’m not talking about agreement because it’s common for two intelligent educated people to disagree. But as an example I can point you to this ridiculous web meme of “there is no value in working for someone else – everyone should be an entrepreneur, or you are a loser.” To compound the problem, most of these pundits have a very narrow view of entrepreneurship, one that does not pay heed to non-web types of startups, and includes what should more accurately be described as “self-employed” people.

    I’m rambling now but my point is that what made blogs so beautiful, the low barriers to entry that allowed anyone who had some relevant knowledge to write about a topic, are also contributing to it’s downfall. At first it was refreshing to have intelligent opinions from someone other than “the experts.” But now anybody and everybody can write cheesy trash and pass it off as knowledge. Couple that with a world that tends to look for easy answers, and you have a dangerous combination.

  • Scott M.

    He’s right, you know and sorry to those who place faith in group-think. Read Eric Hoffers classic: The True believer to get a grip on the poison that comes from the power of persuasion. We burn witches, books and people — while possessed with vacant ideology, a fear of being left-out or singled-out.

    Group-think enabled NASA to perfect blowing-up 7 astronauts at a time. And what sank the Titanic? If your answer is that it was an iceberg… WRONG! It was a decision — yep, everything is the result of a decision. Those of you would believe that with laws and reason you can melt the iceberg before we get there are living an illusion.