In 1906, famed English statistician Sir Francis Galton visited the annual ‘West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition.’ The 84-year-old scientist was obsessed with breeding in his spare time. While I’m sure he strolled along the stalls amidst curious onlookers, he did find the perfect mix of leisure and work: a weight-guessing contest.
An ox was brought on stage before ‘dressing’, which is butcher speak for slaughter and removal of organs. Contestants could then submit guesses regarding the dressed weight for six pence each, which resulted in a variety of prizes, a cool $6,000 in modern-day dollars for the host, and a data set of 787 points for Galton to play with.
As Galton suspected, not even the few livestock experts among the group guessed the correct weight. The best estimate came in at 1,207 lbs, nine pounds off the 1,198 lbs mark. When he calculated the mean of all guesses, however, Galton was shocked: 1,197 lbs.
Imagined as a single individual, the crowd’s judgement was almost perfect.
Why Crowd Forecasting Works
James Surowiecki told this story in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. He also explained what Galton didn’t understand at the time: why big crowds are good at making accurate predictions. Surowiecki names three advantages a large group holds over an individual when it comes to judgement calls:
- Cognition. If our brains are like computers, stacking them in a row makes information processing faster, more stable, and less prone to subjective errors.
- Coordination. All groups have a shared culture. An awareness of said culture allows each member to anticipate how other members will react in certain situations.
- Cooperation. Subconscious agreements about how to behave within the group build trust, and so members can rely on one another, even without a central, governing entity.
That’s why bookies set odds based on community sentiment, Nate Silver correctly called the outcome for two presidential elections with big data, and weather polls are up to 20% more accurate if you throw in a lot of extra, non-expert voters.
But not all crowds are wise. Surowiecki lists four requirements:
- Diverse opinions. If everyone interprets the circumstances the same way, the cognition advantage vanishes.
- Decentralization. The only way people get these different views is by being in different times, places, and professions.
- Aggregation. Without a way to add up all individual judgement calls, you just get a long list of unrelated opinions.
- Independence. What people think can’t be influenced by what other people think.
It is the last factor, independence, that is at the core of why group efforts also often go horribly wrong.
No BBQ, No Cry
Every second of every waking hour, our brains are under attack. Dozens of cognitive biases constantly eat away at our capacity to make good decisions, and while all of them originally served a purpose, most merely cloud our vision in the modern world.
A large chunk of these faulty wirings in our brain reveals itself when we’re interacting with others. Like this one, which inspired Charles Duhigg to write The Power of Habit:
“I had been in Iraq for about two months when I heard about an officer conducting an impromptu habit modification program in Kufa, a small city ninety miles south of the capital. He was an army major who had analyzed videotapes of recent riots and had identified a pattern: Violence was usually preceded by a crowd of Iraqis gathering in a plaza or other open space and, over the course of several hours, growing in size. Food vendors would show up, as well as spectators. Then, someone would throw a rock or a bottle and all hell would break loose.
When the major met with Kufa’s mayor, he made an odd request: Could they keep food vendors out of the plazas? Sure, the mayor said. A few weeks later, a small crowd gathered near the Masjid al-Kufa, or Great Mosque of Kufa. Throughout the afternoon, it grew in size. Some people started chanting angry slogans. Iraqi police, sensing trouble, radioed the base and asked U.S. troops to stand by. At dusk, the crowd started getting restless and hungry. People looked for the kebab sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found. The spectators left. The chanters became dispirited. By 8 P.M., everyone was gone.”
This is called herd behavior. One hungry guy starts yelling and suddenly, everyone thinks it’s in their own best interest to hurl bricks at the police. There’s no coordination, the mob just happens to move in one direction.
Herd behavior may kick off the party, but it is another bias that gets the derailed train to really pick up steam.
A 13-Year-Old’s Nightmare
Whether we find ourselves in an impromptu stampede or a more composed group with a chosen course of action, we instantly associate our new insider status with safety. There’s nothing we hate more than jeopardizing that feeling. Enter groupthink. Another bias, it causes dysfunctional decision-making for the sake of harmony in our flock.
There are two drivers that reinforce our natural tendency to swallow our own views in favor of minimizing friction: social rank and social proof.
Social rank is our inclination to listen to whoever we perceive as a leader. Usually, that’s merely the loudest person in the room. Or the account with the most followers. Or the celebrity being paid $250,000 for a sponsorship deal. In politics, hundreds of delegates vote on decisive, historical issues after hearing a single person talk. How is that objective? It’s not.
Social proof makes most of our purchasing decisions these days. When we see that “half of all US runners wear these shoes,” that “40,000 others have subscribed,” or that “3,000 people gave this movie 5 stars,” we defer the all-important process of building trust to whoever came before us. A group we know nothing about.
Making decisions this way is a house of cards. Even 13-year-old me knows why. He told his parents that “Toby’s parents let him stay until midnight at Anna’s party too” and that “Matthew, Flo and Vanessa are allowed to as well.” It only took one phone call for this pyramid scheme to collapse. Once again, everyone was home before 10 PM.
While these mental flaws have always impacted how we choose, they’ve never been more cemented in our brains than today. There is no place where the consequences of groupthink are as severe and as omnipresent like the place we all spend most of our time at: the internet.
Of Presidents and Bandwagons
It’s fairly easy to pick a number between 0 and 3,000 lbs, write it down and silently hand it off. Voicing your opinion when your boss opens a group discussion about potentially firing a client is much harder. What’s impossible, however, is making free-spirited decisions when you’re part of a group 24/7/365. Especially if that group preprocesses all of your information.
But that’s exactly the reality we’re faced with today. We’re connected to every person on the globe, all the time. As a result, news are plastered with likes and retweets. Knowledge is full of shares, claps, and comments. Entertainment is rated, dining is reviewed, purchases verified. Even our relationships are measured in hearts, views, and follows.
In 1848, famous circus clown and later presidential candidate Dan Rice had a brilliant idea to support his fellow politician Zachary Taylor in his campaign. He would take his bandwagon, ride around town, and play music, while Taylor sat on top, spreading his agenda. This move was so successful that not only did Taylor become president, but politicians soon fought over a chance to sit on Rice’s wagon and parade around town.
It is here that the phrase “to jump on the bandwagon” originates, which, 50 years later, had become standard practice. However, it also left a bitter taste in the public’s mouth, indicating you were trying to get a splash of someone else’s glory without even considering how they made it to the top.
Today, the bandwagon effect happens billions of times a day on an individual level and it kills our independent thinking. By not practicing this skill when it doesn’t seem to matter, we also lose our capacity to do so when it does. We go online, our brains turn off, and once we leave the house, we can’t switch them back on.
But there are still those with a healthy distaste for bandwagons. Those, who prefer to explore the world on foot. I know someone like that.
On Independence Day 1862, Charles Dodgson was stuck in a boat with his reverend and three daughters of a friend. To pass time on the five mile rowing trip, he told the young girls a story. A story that would continue to touch human hearts to this day.
We love Alice In Wonderland for many reasons, but above all, we love it for the little girl who stood for what she believed in, no matter how much reality began to crumble around her. Once upon a time, we were all Alice. We had a mind of our own. We were curious. Free from dogma, free from doubt.
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
But then we grew up and let society take over. Like Alice along the way, we got a little lost. We’ve been conditioned to constantly ask others for directions, without even asking ourselves where we want to go.
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where –”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend my life sitting on a bandwagon, waving as it passes me by. I don’t want to be at the mercy of other people’s sense of direction. I want to explore Wonderland on my own.
That’s why I’ve built a tool that removes social proof online. It’s a free Chrome extension. Her name is Alice. With Alice, you can disable all counts of social media interactions, such as likes, comments, claps, responses, upvotes, retweets, views, and so on.
You’ll still be able to like, comment and share yourself. You just won’t know how many people have done so before you. The only way to judge if something’s worth your engagement, then, is to think for yourself.
And that will make all the difference.
Your Life Should Feel Like Wonderland
When Sir Francis Galton walked around that livestock fair, he stumbled into an important manifestation of a timeless truth: Knowledge is power. But power is raw. It can create and it can destroy.
Our giant accumulation of human opinions can help us predict the future, or turn us into a mindless herd by the time it arrives. Which role will each of us play in this? “Ah, that’s the great puzzle,” Alice would say.
Social acceptance may have become the norm, but does anyone ever decide they want to be normal? Maybe the Cheshire Cat was right. Statisticians obsessed with breeding, pedantic army majors, circus clowns on bandwagons, we’re all mad here.
I think that’s wonderful. It’s why we’re here. But it all starts with independent thinking. Remember that when you surf around our Wonderland. Like what you like. Retweet what you want to shout. Comment on what makes you think.
As long as you do that, together, there’s nowhere we can’t go.