Better Together? Collectively, We May Be Just As Smart As The Experts

mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant By Sarah Regan
mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant
Sarah Regan is a writer, registered yoga instructor, and Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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The idea of collective intelligence, or "the wisdom of crowds," rests on the idea that when people put their heads together, the average of their answers is quite often an accurate solution to the problem.

But could the collective intelligence demonstrated in things like correctly betting on a sports team have greater implications, in public health and beyond?

One recent study by Portland State University looked at just that, revealing astonishing findings about the power of collective intelligence and how it may be just as powerful as that of experts.

Demonstrating collective intelligence.

The phenomena of collective intelligence was first shown in 1906. In a game to guess the correct weight of an ox at a county fair, a scientist discovered the average guess (of 787 guesses) was only a pound off from the right weight. There's a whole book on the topic titled,The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki, in which he claims large groups are better at "solving problems, fostering innovation, and coming to wise decisions" than a select few.

So in this study, researchers got 250 different people, somehow involved in fishing, to draw a model of what influenced the price of stock for one type of fish. These were no "experts"; they were fishers, water guards, or board members of fishing clubs. But amazingly, after looking at all their data together, the final model demonstrated accurate knowledge of the fish and its ecology.

"About a hundred years after the introduction of the wisdom of crowds phenomenon by Francis Galton," says Antonie Jetter Ph.D., "we expand this theory and show empirically that averaging judgments from large crowds can also work for the cognitively more demanding task of describing a complex system. Maybe this will make our cities smarter, one day. If it does, it is a testament to interdisciplinary research."

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Harnessing the wisdom of groups.

Jetter is right—what can we do with this knowledge? First and foremost, the findings suggest it's important to include the opinions of many. If the study had only looked at answers from fishing club board members, there may have been "group-specific biases" that could lead to the wrong answer. Imagine the real life implications of group-specific biases in public policy.

And for Jetter, she's excited about applying collective intelligence to "other complex systems. "We now understand how we can investigate problems like improving schools or increasing ridership in public transportation—we ask people who frequently interact with these systems and merge their system descriptions," she says. "This has huge potential for making cities smarter."

The idea of collective intelligence itself is fascinating to think on, and what's more fascinating is the potential it holds to help us create a collaborative and practical future. One that's sustainable—and one where everyone has a say.

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