You’ve heard of the “wisdom of the crowd”, the concept that the collective opinion of a group of individuals is more often better than that of a single expert. A researcher in England is testing the theory with real groups of people and doubts the crowd is all that smart.
Unfortunately, the final results are not delivered on the night (they’ll form part of a PhD thesis). But Richardson thinks they will end up demonstrating the pernicious effects of conformity. The decisions people make as a group tend to be more prejudiced and less intelligent than the ones they make individually. “When people interact, they end up agreeing, and they make worse decisions,” he says. “They don’t share information, they share biases. We’re trying to figure out why that is, and how we can make collective decisions better.”
His observation of group conformity is really nothing new. In the 1950s, psychological experiments appeared to show that “people frequently adopt the view of the majority even when it is obviously wrong, and even when they have to deny their own senses”. Studies in the US often demonstrate that large numbers of people vote against their economic best interest.1
However, I’m not prepared to accept this scientist’s global negative view of the internet.
We think of the internet as an information superhighway. It’s not, it’s a bias superhighway. Twitter and Facebook are wonderful ways of sharing information, but it may be that because we’re sharing our prejudices, they’re making us dumber.
Human behavior, online or not, is complex. Whether the crowd is “wise” depends on who is in the crowd and what kinds of questions you ask them.