Sharing Information Corrupts Wisdom of Crowds

Brandon Keim

When people can learn what others think, the wisdom of crowds may veer towards ignorance.

In a new study of crowd wisdom — the statistical phenomenon by which individual biases cancel each other out, distilling hundreds or thousands of individual guesses into uncannily accurate average answers — researchers told test participants about their peers’ guesses. As a result, their group insight went awry.

“Although groups are initially ‘wise,’ knowledge about estimates of others narrows the diversity of opinions to such an extent that it undermines” collective wisdom, wrote researchers led by mathematician Jan Lorenz and sociologist Heiko Rahut of Switzerland’s ETH Zurich, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on May 16. “Even mild social influence can undermine the wisdom of crowd effect.”

The effect — perhaps better described as the accuracy of crowds, since it best applies to questions involving quantifiable estimates — has been described for decades, beginning with Francis Galton’s 1907 account of fairgoers guessing an ox’s weight. It reached mainstream prominence with economist James Surowiecki’s 2004 bestseller, The Wisdom of Crowds.

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