Yesterday, I attended a team development session that focused on group decision making, drawn in part from James Suriowiecki's book "Wisdom of Crowds". In case any of my team who didn't attend are interested, here is a synopsis of what it was about, as well as my own reflections:
Philosophers such as Nietzsche and Thoreau contended that, while individuals may be wise, crowds/groups were not. Surowiecki's book challenges this view and cites research by Belbin and Galton that evidences that group judgements, when aggregated, tend to be wiser or closer to the truth than those of individual experts, without there being a need to start with a particularly smart or well-informed group. The example of "ask the audience" in the TV quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire was cited - apparently, over the history of the show, this option has generated more correct answers than the option to "phone a friend" who may be expert in the subject.
Types of crowd wisdom cited were:
Cognition: pertaining to market judgement
Co-ordination: pertaining to behaviour patterns
Co-operation: pertaining to the voluntary suspension of self-interest and/or distrust to form a network
Examples of causes failed crowd intelligence:
Too centralised: Columbia shuttle disaster blamed on the overly hierarchical structure of NASA
Too divided: failure to prevent 9/11 blamed on lack of cohesion between intelligence analysts
Too imitative: the information cascade, resulting in the "everyone's doing it" mentality
Groupthink: a situation where each member of a group deliberately conforms to what appears to be popular consensus. The Bay of Pigs debacle was blamed on this phenomenon in the team of decision makers
We covered some of the experiments that have been conducted to explore things like groupthink, conformity and obedience:
Asch's conformity experiments which investigated the extent to which individuals could be influenced to make a patently incorrect statement so as not to disagree with the majority.
Stanley Milgrim's obedience to authority experiments which investigated what he believed to a be a peculiarly German trait to carry out acts of atrocity in obedience to instruction (he obviously hadn't heard of the Zulu half brothers Shaka and Dingane). To his surprise (and mine), apparently 65% of us are likely to administer a potentially lethal electric shock to a complete stranger on the instruction of an authority figure. Regardless of nationality. I can't help wondering what the long term impact was of this realisation on the naive subjects of this experiment!
The elements required for a wise crowd were identified as:
- diversity of opinion
- keep ties loose
- expose yourself to as much information as possible
Some recommeded reading to come out of the session:
Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki
Obedience to Authority by Stanley Milgrim
The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker
An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin
I found the workshop interesting and informative. I do not consider myself sufficiently expert in the subject matter to take issue with most of the allegations or findings, but I did have one major reservation. I was concerned about the use of the terms "crowd" and "group" interchangeably. I consider them very different phenomena and subject to very different psychological influences. To me, a group would be something like the electorate, motorcyclists or television viewers - a disparate collection of individuals loosely connected by a common interest or purpose (my own definition that probably needs work!). A crowd, on the other hand would be an audience, a rally or a congregation - all simultaneously subjected to a set of circumstances. I strongly believe that this is an important distinction that will have enormous bearing on collective behaviour, although the workshop presenter did not agree with me.