The Wisdom of Communities

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Speaking of Place

The Wisdom of Communities

by James Surowiecki

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“A person is smart. People are dumb,” Tommy Lee Jones says in the comedy classic Men in Black. Jones’ take is a short and sweet expression of a familiar idea: when people get together in a group, they become more stupid than they were apart. As a result, although we often pay lip service to the idea of collaborative decision-making and the importance of listening to different voices, organizations and communities often assume that the best decisions will emerge from the judgment of a single leader or a small collection of decision-makers. But while this assumption may seem sensible to anyone who’s had to suffer through a mind-numbing office meeting, it’s actually a mistake. If you want to solve a complicated problem, or make a good decision, the best thing you can do is to cast a wide net and to incorporate the judgments of many people, rather than just a few. Crowds of people, it turns out, are not dumb. Much of the time, in fact, they turn out to be brilliant.

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Watch a clip from James Surowiecki's
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The simplest illustration of this idea, which I call “the wisdom of crowds,” is an experiment that was first done by a business professor named Jack Treynor, in which he asked a group of 56 people to guess how many jellybeans were in a jar. There were 850 beans in Treynor’s jar. The group’s average guess was 871. That was remarkably close to the right answer, and only one of the 56 people made a more accurate guess. Or take the show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. When a contestant on the show is stumped by a question, he can ask the audience for help or consult someone he’s designated as an expert. The experts do a reasonable job: they get the answer right 65 percent of the time. But the audience is much closer to perfect: it gets the answer right 91 percent of the time.

Now, counting jellybeans and answering trivia questions are admittedly not the most difficult of tasks. But even when it comes to far more challenging tasks – forecasting the outcomes of horse races and elections, predicting business events, and organizing the vast flow of information on the Internet – the wisdom of crowds is often exceptionally good. And collective intelligence is especially valuable when it comes to subjects like town and city planning and managing development, subjects where important information is not concentrated in the hands of a few people, but is diffused among myriad members of the community. If the job is to come up with a smart judgment about how a particular development might affect a town, or to produce a far-sighted plan for balancing environmental, aesthetic, economic, and social concerns, you’re far more likely to end up with a good answer if you solicit and aggregate the judgments of those who live in the community, rather than rely on a more traditional, top-down planning process.

Is there a catch to the wisdom of crowds? Only in the sense that it does take some work to make sure the crowd is wise, rather than foolish. In particular, it’s essential to make sure that the crowd is a diverse one, made up of people with different perspectives and different problem-solving tools. Groups tend to go wrong when they’re homogeneous, because it becomes difficult for people to recognize their own blind spots and the potential flaws in their thinking. Diverse groups, though, are less likely to succumb to hubris, and more likely to consider the full range of alternatives and to identify potential problems. Similarly, for a crowd to be smart, people need to be able to be independent thinkers, and to feel free not to mimic what those around them are doing. Paradoxically, the best group decisions emerge when people are thinking as much like individuals as possible.

At the same time, though, smart crowds – particularly when faced with a challenge like thinking about the future of a community – work best when people trust each other. Trust allows you to reap the benefits of disagreement and diverse thinking without having the group fracture, and trust also ensures that people feel like they’re working toward the same goal – even if they have different ideas of how to get there. When that kind of trust exists, opening up the decision-making and planning process is likely to produce exceptional results. So ask the crowd – it usually knows best.

James Surowiecki, autbor of the national bestseller, The Wisdom of Crowds, knows the importance of a collaborative process, both in academia and the business world. A Morehouse Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he pursued doctoral studies in American history before turning to business journalism. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Foreign Affairs and other major publica­tions. He wrote “The Bottom Line” column for New York magazine, and was a contributing editor at Fortune. Currently a staff writer at The New Yorker, he writes the popular business column “The Financial Page.” He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is married to Slate culture editor Meghan O’Rourke.