How To Unleash The Wisdom Of Crowds

How To Unleash The Wisdom Of Crowds

The great Victorian polymath, Sir Francis Galton was at a country fair in 1906, so the story goes, and came across a competition where you had to guess the weight of an ox. Once the competition was over Galton, an explorer, meteorologist, scientist and statistician, took the 787 guesses and calculated the average, which came to 1,197 pounds. The actual weight of the ox was 1,198 pounds. In effect, the crowd had provided a near perfect answer. Galton would later publish this insight in Nature.

This phenomenon, where collective wisdom is better than most, if not all of the individuals in the crowd has become known as the Wisdom of Crowds. The authoritative take on it came from James Surowiecki. A more up-to-date example is the “Ask the Audience” part of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, where the studio audience are polled and the most popular answer is the correct answer 91% of the time.

Even if there is a better individual guess, you face the problem of deciding which individual’s guess to select. If you choose the crowd’s guess, the decision is made for you and there is every opportunity that you will get a good answer, certainly better than choosing randomly from the other guesses. The technique has practical uses beyond the quiz show.

Understanding the Challenger Disaster

On January 28 1986 the space shuttle Challenger broke up 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven astronauts on board. The disaster has been well reported in the intervening 30 years, but one intriguing aspect of it may have passed you by.

Almost immediately after the explosion, investors started selling stocks of the four main contractors involved in the Challenger launch – Lockheed, Rockwell International, Martin Marietta and Morton Thiokol. Of the four companies Morton Thiokol fell the most, almost 12% by the end of trading on that day, compared to about 3% for the other three companies.

This was a sign that the stock market felt that Morton Thiokol was to blame for the disaster but without having any firm evidence to hand.

In any case, six months later, the market was proven to be right. The O-ring seals on the booster rockets made by Thiokol were the cause of the problem. Richard Feynman, the renowned physicist, famously presented his findings to the Rogers Commission showing how the seals had failed.

It is still not quite clear how the wisdom of crowds managed to identify the company that was to blame for the disaster within minutes of it happening. Markets always weigh up a variety of factors and it’s hard to unpick the rationales at play. It’s just about possible that a few investors caught wind of whispers from before the launch about engineers' concerns.

Finding the Scorpion submarine

On May 22 1968 the US navy lost one of its submarines and wanted to find the wreckage, but the intelligence it had was not able to provide an area that was small enough to effectively search. John Craven a naval officer, decided to harness the wisdom of crowds.

He asked a wide group of individuals, drawn from diverse backgrounds ranging from mathematicians to salvage experts to guess the submarine’s location. The group’s average guess was just 220 yards from the location where the Scorpion was eventually found.


 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

What makes it work?

The wisdom of crowds might seem like an easy way to to get answers. Simply ask a lot of people want they think, and aggregate the answers. If the method could find the Scorpion submarine, then a missing plane should be just as easy? Well, no.

As yet, nobody has been able to find the Malaysia Airlines plane MH370 that went missing in March 2014. Almost two years on and the crash site – assuming it crashed – has not been found. That’s despite a massive crowdsourcing effort to identify the location of the aircraft, which was detailed in an article on The Conversation. But this was a case of searching for pieces of debris, not making educated guesses about location. And it leads us in to the key rules to follow if you want to use the wisdom of crowds to your advantage.

Four criteria are important in making this an effective tool.

  1. Independence: The various guesses have to be independent of one another. That is, each person must guess without the knowledge of what other people have guessed.

  2. Diversity: It is important to have a diverse set of guesses. In the guess the weight of the ox example, the people making the guesses ranged from farmers, butchers, livestock experts, housewives etc. That is, some people would be considered experts, while others would be considered as people with just a passing interest.

  3. Decentralisation: The people making the guesses should be able to draw on their private, local knowledge.

  4. Aggregation: There must be some way of aggregating the guesses into a single collective guess. In the guess the weight of the ox example, this was done by taking the average guess. This is a common method, but others may also be used.

Philip Ball, in this BBC article, highlighted flaws in the theory when studies ignore the rules. Remove independence and people start to gravitate towards a consensus which veers away from the accurate answer. Reduce diversity and respondents rely on shared biases, like a room full of football fans predicting results while burdened with the knowledge of which teams are the favourites. In other words, it helps to deploy a bit of wisdom when choosing your crowd.

About The Author

About The Author

Graham Kendall, Professor of Operations Research and Vice-Provost, University of Nottingham. His research interests include: Operational Research , Evolutionary Computing, Scheduling, Games

Appeared On The Conversation

Related Book

at

You May Also Like

follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

AVAILABLE LANGUAGES

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeeliwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptroruesswsvthtrukurvi

MOST READ

mindfulness and dance mental health 4 27
How Mindfulness And Dance Can Improve Mental Health
by Adrianna Mendrek, Bishop's University
For decades, the somatosensory cortex was considered to only be responsible for processing sensory…
how pain killers work 4 27
How Do Painkillers Actually Kill Pain?
by Rebecca Seal and Benedict Alter, University of Pittsburgh
Without the ability to feel pain, life is more dangerous. To avoid injury, pain tells us to use a…
what about vegan cheese 4 27
What You Should Know About Vegan Cheese
by Richard Hoffman, University of Hertfordshire
Fortunately, thanks to the increasing popularity of veganism, food manufacturers have begun…
how save m0ney on food 6 29
How To Save On Your Food Bill And Still Eat Tasty, Nutritious Meals
by Clare Collins and Megan Whatnall, University of Newcastle
Grocery prices have taken a hike upwards for a host of reasons, including the rising costs of…
the west that never exsisted 4 28
Supreme Court Ushers In The Wild West That Never Actually Existed
by Robert Jennings, InnerSelf.com
The Supreme Court has just, by all appearances, intentionally turned America into an armed camp.
ocean sustainability 4 27
The Health Of The Ocean Hinges On Economics And The Idea Of Infinity Fish
by Rashid Sumaila, University of British Columbia
Indigenous Elders recently shared their dismay about the unprecedented decline in salmon…
get vaccine booster 4 28
Should You Get A Covid-19 Booster Shot Now Or Wait Until Fall?
by Prakash Nagarkatti and Mitzi Nagarkatti, University of South Carolina
While COVID-19 vaccines continue to be highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death, it…
who was Elvis pressly 4 27
Who Was The Real Elvis Presley?
by Michael T. Bertrand, Tennessee State University
Presley never wrote a memoir. Nor did he keep a diary. Once, when informed of a potential biography…

New Attitudes - New Possibilities

InnerSelf.comClimateImpactNews.com | InnerPower.net
MightyNatural.com | WholisticPolitics.com | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.