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The Wisdom of Crowds
Cover of The Wisdom of Crowds
The Wisdom of Crowds
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In this fascinating book, New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea: Large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant—better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.

With boundless erudition and in delightfully clear prose, Surowiecki ranges across fields as diverse as popular culture, psychology, ant biology, behavioral economics, artificial intelligence, military history, and politics to show how this simple idea offers important lessons for how we live our lives, select our leaders, run our companies, and think about our world.

In this fascinating book, New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea: Large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant—better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.

With boundless erudition and in delightfully clear prose, Surowiecki ranges across fields as diverse as popular culture, psychology, ant biology, behavioral economics, artificial intelligence, military history, and politics to show how this simple idea offers important lessons for how we live our lives, select our leaders, run our companies, and think about our world.

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  • From the book The Wisdom of Crowds


    I


    If, years hence, people remember anything about the TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, they will probably remember the contestants' panicked phone calls to friends and relatives. Or they may have a faint memory of that short-lived moment when Regis Philbin became a fashion icon for his willingness to wear a dark blue tie with a dark blue shirt. What people probably won't remember is that every week Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? pitted group intelligence against individual intelligence, and that every week, group intelligence won.

    Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was a simple show in terms of structure: a contestant was asked multiple-choice questions, which got successively more difficult, and if she answered fifteen questions in a row correctly, she walked away with $1 million. The show's gimmick was that if a contestant got stumped by a question, she could pursue three avenues of assistance. First, she could have two of the four multiple-choice answers removed (so she'd have at least a fifty-fifty shot at the right response). Second, she could place a call to a friend or relative, a person whom, before the show, she had singled out as one of the smartest people she knew, and ask him or her for the answer. And third, she could poll the studio audience, which would immediately cast its votes by computer. Everything we think we know about intelligence suggests that the smart individual would offer the most help. And, in fact, the "experts" did okay, offering the right answer—under pressure—almost 65 percent of the time. But they paled in comparison to the audiences. Those random crowds of people with nothing better to do on a weekday afternoon than sit in a TV studio picked the right answer 91 percent of the time.

    Now, the results of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? would never stand up to scientific scrutiny. We don't know how smart the experts were, so we don't know how impressive outperforming them was. And since the experts and the audiences didn't always answer the same questions, it's possible, though not likely, that the audiences were asked easier questions. Even so, it's hard to resist the thought that the success of the Millionaire audience was a modern example of the same phenomenon that Francis Galton caught a glimpse of a century ago.

    As it happens, the possibilities of group intelligence, at least when it came to judging questions of fact, were demonstrated by a host of experiments conducted by American sociologists and psychologists between 1920 and the mid-1950s, the heyday of research into group dynamics. Although in general, as we'll see, the bigger the crowd the better, the groups in most of these early

    experiments—which for some reason remained relatively unknown outside of academia—were relatively small. Yet they nonetheless performed very well. The Columbia sociologist Hazel Knight kicked things off with a series of studies in the early 1920s, the first of which had the virtue of simplicity. In that study Knight asked the students in her class to estimate the room's temperature, and then took a simple average of the estimates. The group guessed 72.4 degrees, while the actual temperature was 72 degrees. This was not, to be sure, the most auspicious beginning, since classroom temperatures are so stable that it's hard to imagine a class's estimate being too far off base. But in the years that followed, far more convincing evidence emerged, as students and soldiers across America were subjected to a barrage of puzzles, intelligence tests, and word games. The sociologist Kate H. Gordon asked two hundred students to rank...
About the Author-
  • James Surowiecki is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he writes the popular business column, "The Financial Page." His work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Artforum, Wired, and Slate. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

    www.wisdomofcrowds.com

    From the Trade Paperback...

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 29, 2004
    While our culture generally trusts experts and distrusts the wisdom of the masses, New Yorker
    business columnist Surowiecki argues that "under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them." To support this almost counterintuitive proposition, Surowiecki explores problems involving cognition (we're all trying to identify a correct answer), coordination (we need to synchronize our individual activities with others) and cooperation (we have to act together despite our self-interest). His rubric, then, covers a range of problems, including driving in traffic, competing on TV game shows, maximizing stock market performance, voting for political candidates, navigating busy sidewalks, tracking SARS and designing Internet search engines like Google. If four basic conditions are met, a crowd's "collective intelligence" will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts, Surowiecki says, even if members of the crowd don't know all the facts or choose, individually, to act irrationally. "Wise crowds" need (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions. The diversity brings in different information; independence keeps people from being swayed by a single opinion leader; people's errors balance each other out; and including all opinions guarantees that the results are "smarter" than if a single expert had been in charge. Surowiecki's style is pleasantly informal, a tactical disguise for what might otherwise be rather dense material. He offers a great introduction to applied behavioral economics and game theory. Agent, Chris Calhoun. (On sale May 18)

    Forecast:
    While armchair social scientists (e.g., readers of
    The Tipping Point) will find this book interesting, college economics, math, statistics and finance students could really profit from spending time with Surowiecki. National author promos and print ads will attract buyers.

  • Po Bronson, author of What Should I Do With My Life?

    "As entertaining and thought-provoking as The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.... The Wisdom of Crowds ranges far and wide." --The Boston Globe"A fun, intriguing read--and a concept with enormous potential for CEOs and politicos alike." --Newsweek"This book is not just revolutionary but essential reading for everyone."--Christian Science Monitor"Provocative....Musters ample proof that the payoff from heeding collective intelligence is greater than many of us imagine." --BusinessWeek"There's no danger of dumbing down for the masses who read this singular book." --Entertainment Weekly"Clearly and persuasively written." --Newsday"Convincingly argues that under the right circumstances, it's the crowd that's wiser than even society's smartest individuals. New Yorker business columnist Surowiecki enlivens his argument with dozens of illuminating anecdotes and case studies from business, social psychology, sports and everyday life." --Entertainment Weekly"The author has a knack for translating the most algebraic of research papers into bright expository prose." --The New York Times Book Review"Dazzling . . . one of those books that will turn your world upside down. It's an adventure story, a manifesto, and the most brilliant book on business, society, and everyday life that I've read in years." --Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point "Surowiecki's clear writing and well-chosen examples render complicated mathematical and sociological theories easy to grasp. . . . [His] accounts of how the wisdom of crowds has formed the world we live in will thrill trivia mavens--and may make a better investor (or football coach) out of anyone who takes its conclusions to heart." --Time Out New York"This book should be in every thinking businessperson's library. Without exception."

  • Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball "Drawing from biology, behavioral economics, and computer science, Surowiecki offers answers to such timeless--and often rhetorical--questions as "Why does the line you're standing in always seem to move the slowest?" and "Why is there so much garbage on TV?" The result is a highly original set of conclusions about how our world works." --Seed Magazine"As readers of Surowiecki's writings in The New Yorker will know, he has a rare gift for combining rigorous thought with entertaining example. [The Wisdom of Crowds] is packed with amusing ideas that leave the reader feeling better-educated." --Financial Times (London)"The book is deeply researched and well-written, and the result is a fascinating read." --Deseret Morning News"Jim Surowiecki has done the near impossible. He's taken what in other hands would be a dense and difficult subject and given us a book that is engaging, surprising, and utterly persuasive. The Wisdom of Crowds will change the way you think about markets, economics, and a large swatch of everyday life." --Joe Nocera, editorial director of Fortune magazine and author of A Piece of the Action "Makes a compelling case." --The Gazette (Montreal)"Deftly compressing a small library's worth of research into a single slim and readable volume, the Financial Page columnist at The New Yorker makes his bid to capture the zeitgeist as his colleague Malcolm Gladwell did with The Tipping Point. . . . The author has produced something surprising and new: a sociological tract as gripping as a good novel." --Best Life"Surowiecki is a patient and vivid writer with a knack for telling examples." --Denver Post "Most crowds of readers would agree that Jim Surowiecki is one of the most interesting journalists working today. Now he has written a book that will exceed even their expectations. Anyone open to re-thinking their most basic assumptions--people who enjoyed The Tipping Point, say--will love this book."
  • Detroit Free Press "Surowiecki's is a big-idea book." --Salon.com"I
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