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How to Get the Most Out of the Crowd When Relying on Wisdom of the Crowd

Updated on January 9, 2018
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Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of 2, and a published sci-fi and horror author.

Introduction

While democracy and voting are the most powerful forms of "the wisdom of the crowd", the utilization of the crowd for many problem solving tasks is widespread. Many crowd sourcing tasks rely on the wisdom of the crowd for accurate and timely results. And you can set up tasks to use collective wisdom to determine an answer more accurate than one expert or even a group of experts.

Cover of the Book "The Wisdom of Crowds"
Cover of the Book "The Wisdom of Crowds" | Source

How to Manage Groups to Maximize the Wisdom of the Crowd

Groups must tolerate and encourage diverse expressions of opinion. Intelligent groups don’t ask members to change their consensus for the sake of majority opinion directly or pressure them to do so indirectly.

Groups for problem solving via wisdom of the crowd must not allow the diversity of opinion and approach to be undermined. Any tactics to alter the random distribution of opinions in the group such as attempting to ensure those of a specific opinion are (over)represented must be strongly prohibited. Self selection of group members should be monitored for bias, though this isn’t as severe as half of X group showing up to make sure their voice is heard, or worse, deliberately shape the outcome.

And remember that a panel of experts is not a diverse data set on which you can trust the wisdom of the crowd; the fact that ego depletion was a standard in psychology until 2016 and global cooling was a widely held scientific belief until global warming took its place is proof experts can be just as wrong in crowds as they can be individually. Hiring a number of industry experts to try to compound on their wisdom as a crowd often fails. Per Surowiecki, “Ask a hundred people, and the average answer will often be as good as the smartest member’s answer.” When all your experts are of like mind, the answer will actually be worse than average due to bias.

To quote Surowiecki's book "The Wisdom of Crowds", “With most things, the average is mediocrity; with decision making, it is often excellence”. And that’s why democracy is so much more successful, on average, over authoritarians and rule by elites the wisdom of the crowds tends to be better than both the experts and the authoritarians.

Silence radically different opinions, and the wisdom of the crowd won't be right.
Silence radically different opinions, and the wisdom of the crowd won't be right. | Source

What Destroys the Wisdom of the Crowd?

One community consensus building method that destroys the wisdom of the crowd, while undermining democratic meetings by definition, is the Delphi method. A group of activists, often paid but as often extremely opinionated volunteers, show up to public venues. They intentionally disperse through the crowd to blend in with it. By definition, they destroy the independence of opinions that make for the most reliable, accurate aggregate outcomes. They then advocate their view and seek to shape the opinions of others, undermining the diversity of the group.

Many of these Delphi method users also stand up to ask questions that shape the public perception in a specific direction or dominate the microphone so that contrary opinions aren’t held. The public appearance is then dominantly their viewpoint. They directly affect the public image by minimizing how many contrary views there are, and by seeming to surround others with contrary views, they give the subtle image to contrary view holders that everyone around them disagrees with them, so many stay silent. Less subtle and more egregious is the Delphi method users who shout down contrary views when expressed, a heckler’s veto, and their dispersion and loud shouting gives the appearance to meeting attendees and decision makers that someone local who expresses an opinion is the opposite of what the public wants.

Another thing that destroys the wisdom of the crowd is giving the platform too long to one person, letting the most passionate person have the most time to speak, in essence altering the opinions of others through lobbying that seems approved by those organizing the events. Just because someone is most heavily invested in their opinion doesn’t make their opinion correct; the opposite is often true.

When you collect the opinions of those who are giving their input, a private means of doing so is best, like the secret ballot. If anyone could be harassed for giving their opinion, they may shift it toward the perceived politically correct or supposed consensus one (the Abilene Paradox).

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