How crowds can avoid groupthink

The theory of the wisdom of crowds has been around for a while now, but the traditional theory dictates that the crowd is only really wise so long as they don’t talk to each other and thus influence each others opinions, for that is the way to groupthink.

A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania sheds new light on the topic, and suggests that the real wisdom of the crowd is in the network itself.  Indeed, they believe that the crowd can get smarter through communication.

“The classic theory says that if you let people talk to each other groups go astray. But,” they say, “we find that even if people are not particularly accurate, when they talk to each other, they help to make each other smarter. Whether things get better or worse depends on the networks.”

Equality is key

The key, they suggest is the equality of the network.  When the network is egalitarian and influence is spread equally throughout it, there’s a strong social-learning effect that makes everyone smarter.  This doesn’t tend to occur however when certain individuals dominate discussions.

This is bad because whilst influential people may indeed have well-earned subject matter expertise, their influence tends to persist even outside that area of expertise, thus reducing the smartness of the group.  Indeed, the authors suggest that opinion leaders were more likely to lead the group astray as improve it.

“In a situation where everyone is equally influential,” the authors say, “people can help to correct each other’s mistakes. This makes each person a little more accurate than they were initially. Overall, this creates a striking improvement in the intelligence of the group. The result is even better than the traditional wisdom of the crowd! But, as soon as you have opinion leaders, social influence becomes really dangerous.”

The question becomes of course, how likely is it that networks will ever be truly egalitarian?  It seems inevitable in any gathering of people that some will gain more power and influence than others, and thus dictate how information flows and opinions form.  That seems an inevitable facet of human nature.  So whilst the paper is undoubtedly interesting, I feel it is interesting primarily for the warnings it provides about allowing influential people to unduly dominate debates, especially when their input is not in an area of expertise.

The researchers are currently looking to test their findings in the field via work to improve physicians’ decision-making.  They hope to develop a social network for hospital environments that they believe will reduce implicit bias in physicians’ clinical judgments and to improve the quality of care that they can offer.

“It’s much better to have people talk to each other and argue for their points of view than to have opinion leaders rule the crowd,” they conclude. “By designing informational systems where everyone’s voices can be heard, we can improve the judgment of the entire group. It’s as important for science as it is for democracy.”