How Diverse Groups Are More Intelligent Than Individuals

Sometimes there is a false impression that a super expert always knows more than large groups. In fact, there is a lot of focus, on the herd mentality that we often see in groups. But the reality is and can be much different, depending on 3 key factors.

Take for example an ant colony, which in a way is an “intelligent” society. An ant colony works remarkably well most of the times. There are no leaders, strategies or plans. Individual ants know almost nothing. Yet the colony successfully survives by getting all work done.

But what helps ants survive, can also kill them. And this is the irony.

When ants march to find food they can get caught up in a circular mill and march to their death. The reason is that every move an ant makes depends on what its fellow ants do. Therefore ants cannot act independently.

Of course, human societies are not ant colonies.

But what makes us collectively smarter and under which circumstances?

According to James Surowiecki, author of the influential book “The Wisdom Of Crowds”, as a group we can make more sense of the world than we can individually.

He identified 3 key factors.

Diversity in Groups

Surowiecki found that groups are always smarter in making decisions than the smartest individual in the group. However, they need to consist of diverse people who possess varying degrees of knowledge and insights.

But it doesn’t matter if some people are not well-informed or have extreme views as long as there are others that are knowledgeable or have balanced views.

All these different views inside the groups “neutralise” each other and make decisions less skewed.

Independence of opinion inside the Groups

The second key factor that makes groups intelligent is independence. Can people think independently based on their own thoughts and private information with limited influence from others? This doesn’t mean that people need to be isolated from each other but rather have a relative freedom to think for themselves.

This is essential for two reasons.

First, it prevents mistakes from being correlated.

How many times haven’t you looked up to the sky just because others were looking as well? Most of the times there is a good reason for it but what if there is not?

We can easily become biased and get carried away, just by relying on others for information or by following a trend. Sharing too much information paradoxically can makes us collectively blind. Although this could prove to be positive in some circumstances it can also make us act like marching ants. 

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that just because you are independent you are also rational.

You can be completely irrational but as long you’re independent you won’t make the group any dumber.

Second, independent individuals are more likely to bring something new to the table, offer a different view,or even see something that no one else can see.

This is why it is usually being said that collective decisions should be the product of disagreement and contest.

People need to be challenged for their views and make their case. What I have learned from experience is that when I challenge someone in their opinions it helps them realise their blind spots but at the same time it helps me rethink my views and recalibrate.

Decentralisation

I know that the traditional view of the world is that power should be centralised and concentrated to a leader, a government, a CEO, who will have a masterplan and answers for everything.

However, in today’s increasingly complex world this traditional view is limiting and simplistic and many times can even be counterproductive.

A society functions at its best when individuals and groups are empowered to act locally. This is because people that are close to a problem have the best context and answers for it, more than any central government can ever have. Athens, the birthplace of democracy, was a city state with all its power within the city boundaries. In fact, ancient Greece was a collection of city states rather than a whole country as we know it today.

Also, decentralisation helps take advantage of the skills of specialised people and experts all across the society instead of having centralised super experts.

However, decentralisation requires a very good level of coordination and integration between all parties, in order for information to get disseminated. We wouldn’t want to end up working, thinking and acting in silos and not caring for anyone outside our small group.

To conclude, large groups of people, hold a nearly complete picture of the world in their collective brain but for a system to be smart at the top it needs to be smart all the way through.

Unfortunately, the rise of the social media has created more noise than information, and has reduced the independence of our views by creating echo chambers of our biases.

And this is the biggest irony of our days.

The more connected we get, the less independent in our thinking we become.

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