I was watching the new Bruce Springsteen DVD: London Calling. It has three hours of footage from his 2009 concert in Hyde Park. As I listened, something struck me. The crowd always seems to sing in tune. Now, I’ve been to concerts and have been part of the crowd. I know from experience that I absolutely do not sing in tune nor do the people who generally seem to sit near me. So what’s going on? I think it might have to do with a general phenomenon about crowds. As a group, the tend toward the right answer. In this case, the “answer” being pitch.
Try this out. Go ask ten to fifteen people the current level of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Then take the average of their guesses and compare that to the actual number. If they are like most crowds, you might find some individual guesses that are far from the average. Yet, the crowd’s average will beat most of the individuals. This idea isn’t new. John Seely Brown talked about it in his book The Social Life of Information. More recently, Dan Simons and Chris Chabris talked about it in their book, The Invisible Gorilla.
So, beyond having a great party trick, why does this matter? Think about how you gain information and ideas. If you are like many you seek out the “experts”. But, there are a few problems with that. First, the experts aren’t always easy to find. Second, the experts aren’t always experts. As Simons and Chabris point out in their book, we aren’t actually that good at identifying experts or judging our own expertise. In fact, we often mistake confidence with expertise. Simons and Chabris also point out and we learned when writing our book, The Brain Advantage, the brain is very good at instilling a false sense of confidence in ourselves. So, we might need a new strategy.
Instead, why not use what we know about crowds to find that “average” answer. Solicit opinions from a wide variety of people and then boil them down to the common denominator or themes. Don’t just ask people who you think might “know” the right answer – that’s the experts model. Ask everyone! That’s the point. Some people will be in left field. But, when you combine all of their perspectives you’ll probably hit on something good.
Trusting the crowd goes against much of what we’ve been taught in our hierarchical, expert-based organizations. But this is a new age and its time to break old habits.