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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 06-Nov-09


Friday 06-November-09

Wise crowds, inside and out

There has been a buzz around for a few years now about the 'wisdom of crowds' and the perhaps-surprising idea that a lot of people can be smarter than one person. In particular you might expect a crowd to be statistically, well, average.'

The trick of course is not just to get a single vote but to get them to listen and interact. Even when they disagree, you can learn a lot by listening to the arguments. Methods such as the Delphi Technique let everyone know what others said before re-scoring.

An interesting recent study showed that you can also call on the 'crowd within'. The idea of multiple personalities has long been associated with disorders such as schizophrenia and stories such as 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde', and has more recently been gaining ground as a normal state of being. So why not adopt different positions and think again about your problems?

The new approach is called "dialectical boot-strapping" and has been tested with students by researchers Stefan Herzog and Ralph Hertwig. The basic principle is to make the decision, then pause and wonder if your decision is could be wrong somehow. Then think how and why it could be wrong and make another decision. Then find a third decision that takes into account the rationale of both previous decisions. If the decision was about numbers of some sort, the final choice could be an average. This final decision is likely to better than the original.

In their experiment, Herzog and Hertwig asked subjects to estimate historical dates. Half used dialectical boot-strapping, considered how a first estimate might be wrong, and then used this new perspective to make a new estimate. The other control subjects just made two best estimates. The average of each dialectical boot-strapper's two guesses was 4.1 per cent more accurate than their initial estimate whilst the control subjects were just 0.3 per cent more accurate.

So there you go. A very simple technique for better decisions.

Herzog, S., and Hertwig, R. (2009). The Wisdom of Many in One Mind: Improving Individual Judgments With Dialectical Bootstrapping. Psychological Science, 20 (2), 231-237

Your comments

As the leader of a food marketing company, I am beginning to witness people over-process when it comes to decision making. Given today's economy, everyone is looking to make the right business decision. Two things to consider: 1.) There are no right or wrong decisions, just good or bad. If you make a bad decision, learn from it and move on. At least you made a decision. 2.) People need to start making decisions today that are innovative and will pay dividends two or three years down the road. Again at least make a decision. Stop over processing.

-- Jim M

Dave replies:
Good comment, Jim. We think a lot more about what's going on in our head these days and it can lead to 'analysis paralysis'. In the end, you have to make the best decision you can with the information you have at the time, then live with the consequences. It's important also when looking back to know this. Blaming yourself for a 'bad' decision just wastes energy. It can help to think of decision results as 'more effective' and 'less effective', so when you look back at a less effective decision you don't start thinking of your decision (and hence yourself) as 'bad'.

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