Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Crowds

Jeff posted last month about The Wisdom of Crowds, which got me thinking about what might happen if "leaders" act more as aggregators than as traditional "buck stops here" sorts of directors. The idea, as I understand it (cause, I'll be honest: I haven't read the book yet), is that the increased diversity of information that arrives via networks of "crowds" yields to better decisions. What's needed is not someone who tries to distill everything into some "consensus," but to make the information available, in all its thrilling messiness.

So maybe you've already heard about the research reported yesterday by a Washington Post columnist, featured on NPR? That part of the value of workplace diversity isn't just that you get new information: it's that the very makeup of the crowd (if you will) causes everyone to think differently and to be more creative:
"It is not just the minority group members who are responsible for the diversity -- something happens to all the members in a group when the group is diverse," [Tufts University psychologist Sam Sommers] said. "White people behave differently and have different cognitive tendencies in a diverse setting than in a homogenous setting."

This really got Steve Inskeep of Morning Edition all worked up. What? he cried. Give me an example. There were a couple of examples. Here's one:

Sommers asked all-white and diverse groups to read short passages and then asked them to answer SAT-style questions about the passages. When the topics touched on race -- affirmative action, for example -- whites who were part of diverse groups answered more questions correctly than people in all-white groups.

Again, the groups had no verbal interaction before answering the questions, so it wasn't that people of color raised issues that prompted whites to remember the material more clearly. Rather, the mere act of sitting around a table with a diverse group of people seemed to improve the performance of white participants.

Interesting, huh? That crowd logic can infect people, can make people smarter, just by virtue of the crowd being more diverse. This makes total sense to me, and it's why it's much more fun to be in a diverse (diverse in all kinds of ways) department, for example, than a homogeneous one. Just being in a certain environment pushes your thinking. Or doesn't. Depends on the environment, how rich it is.

1 comment:

jeff said...

The other main point to Surowiecki's claim is not just having diverse groups (a fireman, a stockbroker, a lawyer, a barber) but that you have intelligent diverse groups. That point differentiates the wisdom of crowds from mob rule. The crowd is drawing on some form(s) of cultural capital and information, not at straws.

I agree w/how you read it along racial lines (and we should add gender, too). My interests in the book (and other "information" books that seem to be coming out these days) is its relationship to writing and to WPA work where my experience has been that decision making is left to one or two people, and not some kind of metaphoric crowd. That crowd could be a team of people (which it should be) as well as an openness to bring in other "diverse" ideas (from other areas of study).

You should pick the book up. It's a pretty quick read.