Saturday, June 4, 2011

Crowds vs. herds

In my book I draw a distinction between "cooperation" and "collaboration," defining the former as people working while interacting, and the latter as people working on joint projects, but not necessarily in one another's presence or with much productive interaction. In collaborations, after the work is divvied up, participants might spend the majority of their time working independently. 

I argue, furthermore, that this is what typifies most successful real-world collaborations. Except for those of us working on construction sites or film sets, we tend to get most of our work done at desks in private offices or cubicles; not at conference tables.

It turns out that there is a good reason for this. In an article in last weekend's Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer reports that:
The good news is that the wisdom of crowds exists. When groups of people are asked a difficult question—say, to estimate the number of marbles in a jar, or the murder rate of New York City—their mistakes tend to cancel each other out. As a result, the average answer is often surprisingly accurate.

But here's the bad news: The wisdom of crowds turns out to be an incredibly fragile phenomenon. It doesn't take much for the smart group to become a dumb herd. Worse, a new study by Swiss scientists suggests that the interconnectedness of modern life might be making it even harder to benefit from our collective intelligence.

The experiment was straightforward. The researchers gathered 144 Swiss college students, sat them in isolated cubicles, and then asked them to answer various questions, such as the number of new immigrants living in Zurich. In many instances, the crowd proved correct. When asked about those immigrants, for instance, the median guess of the students was 10,000. The answer was 10,067.

The scientists then gave their subjects access to the guesses of the other members of the group. As a result, they were able to adjust their subsequent estimates based on the feedback of the crowd. The results were depressing. All of a sudden, the range of guesses dramatically narrowed; people were mindlessly imitating each other. Instead of canceling out their errors, they ended up magnifying their biases, which is why each round led to worse guesses. Although these subjects were far more confident that they were right—it's reassuring to know what other people think—this confidence was misplaced.

The scientists refer to this as the "social influence effect." In their paper, they argue that the effect has grown more pervasive in recent years. We live, after all, in an age of opinion polls and Facebook, cable news and Twitter. We are constantly being confronted with the beliefs of others, as the crowd tells itself what to think.

This research reveals the downside of our hyperconnected lives. So many essential institutions depend on the ability of citizens to think for themselves, to resist the latest trend or bubble. That's why it is important, as the Founding Fathers realized, to cultivate a raucous free press, full of divergent viewpoints.
The ideal, then, isn't group think, but independent thinking followed by a compilation of people's thoughts. 

Jonah Lehrer, however, neglects to mention one reason why the social influence effect has grown in recent years:  all the time that today's students are forced to work in groups in K12 classrooms, and, increasingly, in college classrooms as well.  In this case it's not the hyperconnectedness of our wired and wireless lives that's responsible, but the group think of the education world, with its systematic confusion of "cooperation" with "collaboration."

1 comment:

Ryan Cantrell said...

I just stumbled upon your blog and have only recently began to study the way students' brains work in a school setting. Very interesting and will return here soon!