The Wisdom of Crowds

Hrmph. Since my laptop keeps dying on the other post I’m trying to make, I might blog about James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds instead. Here’s a section from p187 about small group dynamics:

Talkativeness may seem like a curious thing to worry about, but in fact talkativeness has a major impact on the kinds of decisions small groups reach. If you talk a lot in a group, people will tend to think of you as influential almost by default. Talkative people are not necessarily well liked by other members of the group, but they are listened to. And talkativeness feeds on itself. Studies of group dynamics almost always show that the more someone talks, the more they are talked to by others in the group. So people at the center of the group tend to become more important over the course of a discussion.

This might be okay if people only spoke when they had expertise in a particular matter. And in may cases, if someone’s talking a lot, it’s a good sign that they have something valuable to add. But the truth is that there is no clear correlation between talkativeness and expertise. In fact, as the military-flier studies suggest, people who imagine themselves as leaders will often overestimate their own knowledge and project an air of confidence and expertise that is unjustified. And since, as political scientists Brock Blomberg and Joseph Harrington suggest, extremists tend to be more rigid and more convinced of their own rightness than moderates, discussion tends to pull groups away from the middle. Of course, sometimes truth lies at the extreme. And if the people who spoke first and most often were consistently the people with the best information or the keenest analysis, then polarization might not be much of a problem. But it is.

And unlike other recent contributions it’s a serious enough endeavour that it actually proposes solutions to the problems it identifies, and looks at the problems those solutions create.

Top book, highly recommended.

UPDATE 2004/10/27:

Wow. At least to me, those excerpted paragraphs read completely differently on the web versus on paper. The paper version seems calm, collected, and to be building up a point in a measured, albeit anecdotal, way. The web version feels staccato and amateurish. Amazing the differences texture, brightness and font can make.

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