Knowledgeable Individuals Protect the Wisdom of Crowds

Leaders Ed Yong over at Not Exactly Rocket Science:

If you ask someone to guess the number of sweets in a jar, the odds that they’ll land upon the right number are low – fairground raffles rely on that inaccuracy. But if you ask many people to take guesses, something odd happens. Even though their individual answers can be wildly off, the average of their varied guesses tends to be surprisingly accurate.

This phenomenon goes by many names – swam intelligence, wisdom of the crowd, vox populi, and more. Whatever it’s called, the principle is the same: a group of people can often arrive at more accurate answers and better decisions than individuals acting alone. There are many examples, from counting beans in a jar, to guessing the weight of an ox, to the Ask The Audience option in Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

But all of these examples are somewhat artificial, because they involve decisions that are made in a social vacuum. Indeed, James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, argued that wise crowds are ones where “people’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.” That rarely happens. From votes in elections, to votes on social media sites, people see what others around them are doing or intend to do. We actively seek out what others are saying, and we have a natural tendency to emulate successful and prominent individuals. So what happens to the wisdom of the crowd when the crowd talks to one another?

Andrew King from the Royal Veterinary College found that it falls apart, but only in certain circumstances. At his university open day, he asked 82 people to guess the number of sweets in a jar. If they made their guesses without any extra information, the wisdom of the crowd prevailed. The crowd’s median guess was 751.* The actual number of sweets was… 752.

This collective accuracy collapsed if King told different groups of volunteers about what their peers had guessed.