Wisdom, and crowds

Posted by | · · · · · | The Hunter Blog | 1 Comment

If you have a jar full of marbles, you have have a lot of marbles. Also, you have an interesting phenomenon; if you ask a group of people to guess the number in the jar, the average of all the guesses will be pretty much spot-on. The wisdom – it is said – of crowds.

But take the average of the guesses when everybody knows what the previous guess was and you” . . . we bend our decision toward the crowd.” get a skewed value. Solomon Asch’s famous experiment in the 1950’s on conformity (some say the experiment was intended to explore independence) shows the skew quite neatly: One person in a room of nine (or so) confederates all of whom have agreed to pretend that one of the shorter lines of those publicly presented is the longest, even when it is – very obviously – not.

Do this, and between 50% to 80% of the unsuspecting – lone – candidates in each experiment will agree with the group even though they know it to be wrong. Even across variations of this execution in Asch’s study, the average ‘conformity’ was a third.

Either knowingly, or unknowingly, we bend our decision toward the crowd.

Bend it like Asch

So this is how you skew a guesstimate then – pollute the guess with those of others?

dk-Slide21.300_01 Is this how you confound the wisdom of the crowd? By anchoring the guess – fair means or foul?

The right line

In Edge magazine (which is excellent btw – along with Farnam Street blog you will see your curiosity-thirst quenched many times over) Kahneman spoke of a line-length experiment. It is similar to the marbles-in-a-jar approach but can test two dimensions – one test is for“The average length of the lines we can estimate pretty accurately . . . the total length of all the lines placed end-to-end – we struggle” the average length of the lines, the other is the total length of all the lines. The average length of the lines we can estimate pretty accurately, and pretty immediately – so much so it seems we get the answer ‘as if’ for free; much like the marbles in a jar. And even more so if you average a group of individuals’ guesses. But if you ask for a guesstimate of the sum of the lines – the total length of all the lines placed end-to-end – we struggle. We really struggle.

This is not presented so much as an anthropological or behavioural quirk relating to line length” . . . we appreciate the world around us in both frictionless and frictionful ways.” (although, it may be that), but as a recognition that we appreciate the world around us in both frictionless and frictionful ways. And, more importantly, [Deity of your choice] help us if we can actually recognise which is which. As Kahneman says:

” . . . there is a really important distinction between natural assessment and things that are not naturally assessed.”

________

The lesson? If something seems easy look for the corollary. Suck a thoughtful tooth for a moment. Re-jig a choice, or a guess, or an appreciation, and see if you’re making frictionless or frictionful choices. Assumptions will be surfaced, and hard-thinking will be recognised as the product of an anthropological inability, rather than your inadequacies.

Thank [your deity of choice] for that.

• Oliver (LinkedIn) is author of the behavioural communication book Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways To Ask For Change published by Routledge, available in most countries.
• Member of the Influence Advisory Panel
• Join the London Behavioural Economics Network Meetup group
• Join the London Behavioural Economics Network on Facebook


One Comment

TheHunterBlog says:

July 15, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Turns out you can support Farnam Street blog, mentioned above, here http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/tip-jar/

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