We tend to think of crowds as stupid. “The idiocy of the masses.” “The thoughtlessness of the mob.” “The fact that everyone here is attending a Third Eye Blind concert.”
But it’s not always true.
I’m a fan of James Surowiecki’s 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds. He opens with the anecdote of the 1906 Plymouth county fair, where 800 people estimated the weight of an ox. Their guesses were all over the place – some too high, some too low. They averaged out to 1,207 pounds.
The ox’s actual weight? 1,198 pounds.
What makes for wise crowds? Not everyone needs to be knowledgeable. In fact, it’s okay if nobody knows much at all. What’s crucial is that every person’s choice is independent of every other person’s. When calamity strikes – and by “calamity” I mean “stock market crashes” – is when everyone in the crowd is herding around the same strategy.
By that logic, Twitter is the last place you’d look for wise crowds. What with retweets, favorites, blue check marks, and visible follower counts, Twitter users are quite sensitive to status. Herding is the name of the game.
And yet, check this out:
Not bad, right?
This flies against my prejudices about Twitter users. Also, against longstanding results in psychology. Researchers have found, again and again, that people are terrible at acting randomly.
Ask people to generate a sequence of 100 random coin flips, and they fail. Their patterns look totally nonrandom. Folks act as if a “heads” on this flip slightly raises the odds of “tails” on the next one. That’s a fallacy. (To be precise, the gambler’s fallacy.).
Evolutionary psychologists suggest that we evolved to seek patterns wherever they lurk. If that means falling for spurious patterns, then so be it. Perhaps that’s why we are so fond of the false patterns of astrology, and why we’re all convinced that our music shuffle algorithms are operating according to some secret logic, even though they aren’t.
In short, we don’t have mental dice. Our thinking is decidedly nonrandom. But again, that raises the question: how can we explain results like this?
To be fair, Twitter won’t show you the results of a poll until after you vote (or the poll closes). You are thus forced to give an independent answer. Still, I would never have trusted the wisdom of crowds in cases like these. With everyone reading the same question. I’d expect one of two results:
- Twitter users systematically think of themselves as “special,” and thus will overselect the “unlikely” option.
- Twitter users will default towards the likelier option, and thus will overselect it.
It seems strange, bordering on miraculous, that people spontaneously pursue these two strategies in just about the right proportions! It’s as if we can design and then shuffle mental decks of cards, and then report the results.
While I’m at it, here’s a related result from an old throwaway account.
The outcome (50.4% to 49.6%) is spookily close to 50/50. If instead of having 345 strangers vote, you instead flipped 345 coins, you’d get a result this close to even only about 20% of the time.
Yet, in peculiar contrast, consider the failure of the crowds to achieve this far easier task:
Here, the information is public. You just need to check the current ratio. If it’s too low, retweet. If it’s too high, favorite. And yet, as of this writing, the tweet has 405 retweets and 153 favorites, for a dismal pi approximation of about 2.65.
Forget pi; that’s not even a good approximation of e!
Somehow, making the information public – which should in theory allow for perfect coordination – led to a worse outcome. This is perhaps a parable for how Twitter works in general. There really is a surprising amount of wisdom on that social network – as long as we’re forced to be independent.
But give us the chance to herd, and we will herd ourselves off the cliff.