The exchange of information is undermined by the collective mind

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Last reviewed: 16.05.2018

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19 May 2011, 07:46

The wisdom of the crowd is a statistical phenomenon: individual beliefs compensate each other, merging hundreds and thousands of guesses into a supernaturally accurate average response. But during the experiment, scientists took and told the participants of the tests about the conjectures of their colleagues, and as a result, everything went awry. Collective wisdom was undermined by the fact that knowledge about the guesses of others narrowed the diversity of opinions. "Even moderate social influence can produce such an effect," the authors of the study, Jan Lorentz and Heiko Rahut from the Swiss Higher Technical School, emphasize.

This phenomenon was first described in 1907 by Francis Galton, who observed that visitors to the fair were able to guess the weight of the bull. Widespread fame was due to the book by James Shurovesky "The Wisdom of the Crowd" (2004).

As explained by Shurovseski, the collective mind shows its power only under a certain condition: people must have different opinions and come to them independently. Without this, wisdom is impossible, as evidenced by some market bubbles. Computer modeling of the behavior of large masses of people also hints that accurate balance requires a balance between the flow of information and a variety of opinions.

The Lorentz-Rahut experiment is somewhere between major real-world events and theoretical research. They put 144 students in isolated booths and asked to guess the density of the population of Switzerland, the length of its border with Italy, the number of new immigrants in Zurich and the number of crimes committed in 2006. Subjects received a small monetary reward depending on the accuracy of the answers, after which they were again asked. One student was told what their peers thought, and others did not.

Over time, the average response rates of independent subjects became more and more accurate, which can not be said about the answers of students who were influenced. Researchers explain this in three ways: first, opinions have become less diverse; secondly, the right answers were grouped at the periphery, and not at the center; thirdly and in the main, the students became more confident in their conjectures.

"Opinion polls and the mass media contribute significantly to the idea that society thinks about the same way," the scientists write. Thus, the wisdom of the crowd, which is only an average indicator of the spread of opinions, is perceived as evidence of unity. And then businessmen and politicians who offer what everyone would seem to need are not necessary to anyone.

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