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When We’re Cowed by the Crowd

The wisdom of crowds turns out to be an incredibly fragile phenomenon. It doesn’t take much for the smart group to become a dumb herd.

A new study by swiss scientists suggests that interconnectedness might make it harder to benefit from collective intelligence.

We live at a time when seemingly everything is available, but it’s more likely than ever before that we’re all reading the same thing. The lure of conformity is hard to resist.

This research reveals the downside of our hyperconnected lives. So many essential institutions depend on the ability of citizens to think for themselves, to resist the latest trend or bubble. That’s why it is important, as the Founding Fathers realized, to cultivate a raucous free press, full of divergent viewpoints.

And yet, while the Web has enabled new forms of collective action, it has also enabled new kinds of collective stupidity. Groupthink is now more widespread, as we cope with the excess of available information by outsourcing our beliefs to celebrities, pundits and Facebook friends. Instead of thinking for ourselves, we simply cite what’s already been cited.

We should be wary of such influences. The only way to preserve the wisdom of the crowd is to protect the independence of the individual.

Incomplete thought:
Diversity and independence are necessary for good collective decisions. So while the Internet facilitates effectively gathering and sorting a wide variety of opinions—and thus enabling crowd wisdom—it may also be slowly removing diversity. If you think about independence, you want to be ‘free’ to make your choice (e.g., you don’t want your boss standing over your shoulder nudging you to side with him).

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Learn more by reading The Wisdom of Crowds.