The Wisdom of Crowds


ISBN: 9780385721707

READ: 2017-03-13

AUTHOR: James Surowiecki



An important book on the development of crowd mechanisms. I found particularly informative a bunch of psychological and sociological experiments on crowd behaviour, as well as a precious analysis of what makes the crowd complexively smarter rather than dumber. The main ingredient? Let individuals be fairly independent, decentralised thinkers, and aggregate their predictions. This trend is in line with much of mid-20th century philosophy, the transition from an aristocratic conception of knowledge to a democratic one – being the Pulitzer-winner book The Open Society And Its Enemies by philosopher Karl Popper the manifesto of that shift. George Soros was inspired by Popper when he called his philanthropic trust Open Society Foundations; to add a bit of red thread, in one of the late chapters, the author argues for the significance of short-sellers in a healthy market.

Surowiecki deals well with market mechanisms; the collective decision-making leap in politics is daunting and much more complicated, but it is waiting for us ahead. I think this book makes a valuable contribution in that direction, it sheds some light on the positive outcome of collective behaviour. Tellingly, the crowd which makes better decisions isn’t guided by groupthink: it is rather a collection of diverse, autonomously thinking individuals, who get to the best overall action/prediction by acting upon their distinctive informative edges. An indirect praise to the importance of critical thinking and of authentic, responsible sharing of knowledge.


Open questions: short-term vs long-term thinking and the role of virtues

In the talk of market bubbles, Surowiecki sheds light on the gap between short term and long term vision, what Nassim Taleb calls out as lack of ‘skin in the game’. So, which one should we focus on? And why do long-term projects work better for everyone? There is an understandable sense in which acting short-term makes things easier – patience, long-term sustained focus and commitment are hard to put in practice, after all. But why should these qualities be valuable? Is it a kind of folk belief that great things need time to be achieved? Is it just a plain fact, and what makes us consider them valuable is their being rare? A physiological component here may be, among others, that of brain hardwiring, the famous 10.000-hour practice thing. I think that the ability to engage in flow-state brain activity, which has been marvellously described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is equally hard to get at for its dinamicity; everyone who has occasionally engaged in meditation or in any other focussed practice knows what I am talking about. The 10,000-hour rule seems to point out at a plain psychological fact; the flow-like component points at something which is hard to achieve, and which because of that greatly rewards attention and equilibrate effort with bliss and timelessness. It seems from both sides that we are hardwired to work better, achieve better results and feel better with long-term thinking. Is it a mere biological need? If so, what’s its underlying driving force?

The Stanford marshmallow experiment only shows that those pupils who waited for the later reward (which would sum up to the first reward) have generally performed better on SAT tests, etc. The question is: why would delayed gratification (which explains ability of self-control, patience, ability to commit oneself, and so on) be biologically more advantageous? And if that is so, provided we know why, wouldn’t that also imply that virtues are important from a biological point of view?


I think of myself as a reflective person, so I usually wait until I know what I am talking about in order to speak. We are all bound to have incomplete information, but checking in usually helps to get a broader picture, and we know that not everyone engages in some form of reflection; so being talkative doesn’t mean that someone has done his homework, and several experiments have shown how talking at the beginning of a meeting would likely direct its course. The talkative speaker would set the bar of the discussion. Here the old fast-and-slow thinking dilemma presents itself: fast thinking isn’t necessarily the best one, but it comes out faster and shapes the environment before the slow thinker comes around.

A possible way out of it is to recognise that slow thinking has its advantages. So when people take up quite a long time to make up their minds, it may be valuable to put additional effort in listening to them, because they’ll often come up with something that hasn’t been discussed yet, and we are naturally driven to march along with the agenda which has been set out right at the beginning. Awareness of confirmation bias risks and a willingness to take each other accountable may prevent us to get into trouble.


Notes on prosocial behaviour, virtues and collaboration

What makes collaborative behaviour efficient is that people don’t have to repeatedly keep each other in check. Being virtues even though nobody controls you is an ethically interesting topic. Spinoza would say that only that is true virtue, because it is not compromised by fear of judgement. I’d like to look at the behavioural component of it, though. If I explore my mental mechanisms, any behaviour would presumably be enhanced in its quality because once a decision has been made once and for all (that is, once we decide to be virtuous and not to cheat on anybody) that will bring me a kind of peace of mind from no having to deal with mind-change anymore. It is hard to keep promises, but it is almost impossible to stay sane while breaking one’s mental patterns over and over. From a purely biological perspective, whereas altruists genes have a precious role in societal mechanism, they’ll always find a way to reproduce themselves. From an individual standpoint, firmly ethically established people may have some reproductive advantages, by signalling partners the valuable traits of trustworthiness and the ability to stand up for one own’s values, which signals that once the bond within a couple is set up, they would be willing to stand up for their partner as well.

“Knowledge is not real knowledge unless it has been verified and discussed among other people. You don’t gain valuable knowledge by locking yourself up in a room.” – That has been historically true for science, but it is increasingly important in the humanities too. If science has made progress a lot faster than other disciplines, that may also be because of its clear goals. Clear goals supply scientists with a set of broadly-shared assumptions, and that in turn makes them work together more effectively. As humanities set out on being more collaborative, where projects get funded for teams with a largely diverse professional spectrum, it seems likely that they would need tools to achieve a more precise view of their overall aims, making ethical discourse all the more valuable. Ethical issues (especially if seen as a kind of coordination problems) become especially relevant as people have to increasingly work together.