The wisdom of the crowd
Alastair Osborne considers the processes behind collective decision-making – like the selection of a new leader which the UK Labour Party is currently debating – and finds parallels in a famous TV quiz show.
I’ve always been fascinated by the way people collectively reach a decision or change their mind about something with no obvious single reason for doing so.
I commented on social media recently that over 40 Scottish CLPs had now nominated Keir Starmer compared to only 5 for his nearest rival. I got a reply from someone telling me his son had done a Masters degree in political betting and this phenomenon is known as “the wisdom of the crowd”. He is now a professor somewhere in the United States so I would love to know who his money is on for the Democratic candidate there.
We have seen this phenomenon at work before in the Labour membership, when they coalesced behind Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. It has happened to Donald Trump in the US, Boris Johnson in the UK and both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon here in Scotland.
At the last UK election, suddenly “Get Brexit done’ resonated with voters across large swathes of the north of England. In Scotland we had the SNP tsunami of 2015 repeated. Of course you could argue that there were clear reasons for the public to take up these positions, but that doesn’t explain why people can stubbornly go along with or ignore all the rational arguments when it suits them and then change when the time seems right and they are ready.
I hadn’t been familiar with the term “the wisdom of the crowd” before so I did a bit of searching. I found it defined as the collective opinion of a group of individuals rather than that of a single expert. This process, while not new to the internet age, has been pushed into the mainstream spotlight by sites such as Wikipedia that rely on collective human knowledge. (Ironically it was Wikipedia where I found this definition.)
When further research went on to point me in the direction of the ancient Greeks I was on more familiar territory. Aristotle is credited as the first person to write about what we would now call “the wisdom of the crowd” in his work Politics. Thucydides has Pericles say in his funeral oration: “Democracy is administered by the many instead of the few; that is why it is called a democracy”.
The Greeks tried pure democracy, where everyone collectively decided (well everyone except women, children, foreigners and slaves). They also tried “sortition” – selection by lot – for choosing local magistrates and their juries. But for other key tasks they stuck to selecting by ability, experience and knowledge, for instance picking who should be their generals (probably a wise decision).
In the UK we tend to emphasise a representative democracy delivered through our parliamentary system but we do use elements of sortition in selecting juries and citizen’s assembles. We also seek out collective opinion through focus groups and pay attention to public campaigns.
The wisdom of the crowd can often fly in the face of individual knowledge and experience. When the Labour Party membership was giving overwhelming support to Corbyn to lead the party in 2015, many of his most experienced parliamentary colleagues were horrified at the prospect. In this current leadership election the voice of experience and the collective thinking of the membership seem to be more at one.
The TV programme Who wants to be a millionaire? manages to combine all the approaches I have discussed here. When a contestant is stuck on a question he or she can use: 50/50, a pseudo-random selection by lot; phone a friend, making use of others’ knowledge and experience; or rely on “the wisdom of the crowd” and ask the audience (a very reliable method, especially in the earlier rounds).
And now your question for one million pounds: Who can win the next election for Labour? You can go 50/50, phone a friend or ask the audience.