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Making Dumb Groups Smart

Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie write in the Harvard Business Review:

“Since the beginning of human history, people have made decisions in groups. As the saying goes, two heads are better than one. If so, then three heads should be better than two, and four better still. With a hundred or a thousand, then, things are bound to go well—hence the supposed wisdom of crowds.”

group-think-3“The advantage of a group, wrote one early advocate of collective intelligence—Aristotle—is that “when there are many who contribute to the process of deliberation, each can bring his share of goodness and moral prudence…some appreciate one part, some another, and all together appreciate all.” The key is information aggregation: Different people take note of different “parts,” and if those parts are properly aggregated, they will lead the group to know more (and better) than any individual.”

“Unfortunately, groups all too often fail to live up to this potential. Companies bet on products that are doomed to fail, miss out on spectacular opportunities, pursue unsuccessful competitive strategies. In governments, policy judgments misfire, hurting thousands or even millions of people in the process.”

“A smaller but nonetheless substantial body of research… has focused on the decision-making strengths and weaknesses of groups and teams. But little of this work has trickled into the public consciousness, and it has yet to have a noticeable effect on actual practice. It’s time for that to change. We aim to bring behavioral research into direct contact with the question of group performance—to describe the main ways in which groups go astray and to offer some simple suggestions for improvement.”