Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Groupthink and Independent Thought

In his book "The Wisdom of Crowds" James Suroweicki describes how the American Naturalist William Beebe came across an group of army ants moving in what is known as a circular mill. This occurs when the ants find themselves separated from the colony. Once an ant is lost, they adopt a single principle - follow the ant in front of you. In this case the circle was some 1,200 feet in circumference and the ants simply kept marching until they dropped dead.

Now ants are pretty smart creatures - when working in their colony they perform their tasks extremely efficiently and effectively without being explicitly told what to do. So what causes the circular mill? The secret to the ants success in a colony is also the secret to their downfall. Every thing the ant does depends on what the fellow ant does. They do not think independently.

The role of independent thought in group think is the key point that Suroweicki wishes to make. The ability to think independently is one of the 4 pillars to Suroweicki's theory of the wisdom of crowds (the others being basic subject matter expertise, diversity of opinion and forum for collecting thought). We instinctively believe independent thought to be a fundamental need in personal decision making and rationalising to benefit the first person. Suroweicki's theory is that independent, uninfluenced thought is as important for successful group think. To simplify if person A expresses their opinion to person B, person A's decision making is now influenced and effective decision making is diminished. Individual judgement on occasion can be flawed. Should that flawed decision making influence others then the group judgement can be flawed. Truly independent thought eliminates this problem. In a recent class the question "Is language a virus?" was raised. In this context it can be.

Independent thought is important in the context of the individual (certainly I think pride would encourage us to agree with this) but it could be argued that it is far more important and influential in group decision making.


  1. I'd agree with you that members of a group can bring about flawed decision making - the Challenger disaster is the usual go-to example for the pitfalls of groupthink. But then equally, can it not go the other way too: that a group member can cause others to fall in line with an objectively better outcome? Maybe I'm a little too glass-half-full today.

    1. That's all very well - as long as that group member is always right! History shows they are often not. The wisdom of the crowds, if accepted, should result in a consistent "regression-to-just-above-the-mean" position.

    2. Also if you get the opportunity, the great Edward Tutfe's "Visual Explanations" is well worth a read for his analysis on the Challenger disaster alone. While groupthink was clearly an issue, he critically analyses in extreme detail how the presentation of data played a key role in the decision to launch. He summarises:
      "In the 13 charts previously prepared for making the decision to launch, there is a scandalous discrepancy between the intellectual tasks at hand and the images created to serve those tasks. As analytical graphics, the displays failed to persuade government officials that a cold-weather launch might be dangerous. In designing those displays, the chartmakers didn't quite know what they were doing, and they were doing a lot of it"
      He also goes on to demonstrate why much of the information presented at the shuttle commission was equally flawed. Wonderful stuff.

    3. And (genuinely not trying to rack up the comments here!) for some good examples of how individual influence can derail the wisdom of the crowd, Charles Mackay's "Extraordinary Popular Delusions" is a short an enchanting 170 year old read - as relevant today as it was when first published.

  2. I think people just inherently see tending towards the hive mind as a terrible thing, which is obviously not logical in cases where cohering to the consensus of a group optimizes the outcome, but from the standpoint that from our own perspective, each of us are the centre of a unique universe, its kind of rational that people normally despise the idea of being seen as another ant in the colony.

  3. Ants were held up by so as evidence that communism works, with the ant expert E.O Wilson proclaiming 'Communism, right idea, wrong species'. It works for ants as they don't think, they just do. For this reason when Ants do something stupid, like marching in a circle until they die they can be forgiven, but what excuse has our species for collective acts of stupidity? And i don't think people dislike the notion of the hive mind, consensus often breeds consensus.