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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Virtues of Group Decision-Making

We recently covered James Surowiecki's Wisdom Of Crowds and summarised key themes in the book. We also recently covered Suroweicki's article Technology & Happiness.

Slate is hosting a conversation between Malcolm Gladwell and James Surowiecki about their books, both well known - Blink and The Wisdom of Crowds. On their own, each is an interesting writer (Gladwell's Emergence was a fascinating book, and Wisdom of Crowds is, a well acclaimed one They being together can be a deadly combination for coming out with powerful ideas. If you are busy to read their writing this could be an interesting conversation to watch. Excerpts:

Surowiecki to Malcolm:
"Nonexperts groups" aren't always better than expert individuals. In the first place, in some cases—like situations where decisions need to be made in a matter of seconds—collective decision-making is impractical. Other situations—like flying a plane or performing surgery—seem to be tailored pretty well to individuals. More important, there are problems where you need to know a lot just to understand the question you're trying to answer. In those cases, relying on a group of laypeople may be futile.What's important, though, is that even in those situations where expert knowledge seems necessary, you're better off relying on the judgment of a group of experts rather than a single expert, no matter how brilliant I think there are two big problems with relying on a single individual—and those problems exist whether that individual uses rapid cognition or a more deliberate style. The first is that true experts—that is, the real titans—are surprisingly hard to identify. Past performance obviously provides some clue, but you need a very long track record to be sure that someone's performance is really the result of genuine superiority rather than chance. As Nassim Taleb puts it, it's easy to be fooled by randomness.

The second, and more important, problem is that even brilliant experts have biases and blind spots, and so they make mistakes. To me, that's one of the (and maybe the) great virtues of collective decision-making: It doesn't matter when an individual makes a mistake. As long as the group is diverse and independent enough, the errors get corrected and you're left with the knowledge. And here, oddly enough, Blink and The Wisdom of Crowds intersect quite nicely. A lot of your book, is about how biases and prejudices and inexperience can lead us astray when we rely on rapid cognition. My book suggests that in lots of cases, if you aggregate those flawed judgments, you can get rid of the flaws and keep the benefits of rapid cognition. I think one of the reasons why we instinctively (as it were) put more trust in deliberative cognition is that we assume the more time you spend on something, the more likely you are to recognize your mistakes and correct them. ("Always check your work," we were counseled in math class.) Is this a founding myth of the Standard Model?

Malcolm to Surowiecki :
Rapid Cognition is, by definition, a frugal judgment, and it works best in situations where all extraneous data are removed. It's nice and comforting and familiar to see the person whom you are deciding to hire for a position in an orchestra. But it isn't necessary, is it? We have lots of evidence, similarly, that doctors treat heart disease very differently in white men than in women or African-Americans. Is it necessary to know someone's medical history and blood pressure and see their EKG and check for fluid in their lungs? Absolutely. But it is necessary to know whether the patient is white or black? Not at all. Doctors, in some cases, might be better "experts" in heart disease if they treated their patients behind the equivalent of a screen—if that source of bias (skin color) was simply removed from the equation. My survey of Fortune 500 CEOs, as you mentioned, revealed that, with very few exceptions, they are almost all tall. Are CEOs chosen whimsically? Not at all. Committees spend weeks and months in deliberation. But at the end of the day they still end up overwhelmingly picking tall men. Deliberation makes us more confident in our decision. But I'm not sure it makes the decision itself more accurate and free of bias. So, I suppose I share with you a general skepticism about the "expert"—in the sense that I think that many of the trappings of expertise are exercises in self-delusion. And moving toward collective decision making—as you propose—is certainly one way of trying to winnow out the delusions. But I guess my final point in this round would simply be that there are good ways of fixing the individual decision-maker as well. We can put up the equivalent of screens. We can find ways of editing out nonessential information. .

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