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Community Decision-Making and Independence

I’m intrigued by the ability of crowds to make good decisions. Elections are a perfect example of a diverse enough crowd making a better decision (more often than not) than an individual alone. It would be ideal to harness this decision-making power for more general decisions than we typically do. Need to decide which of two or three options would be the best way to proceed… don’t just ask the experts, a better decision can be made by a diverse and independent “crowd”.

What’s stopping us from doing it, (except the fear that a worse decision will be made)? For me, it is the fact that it is nearly impossible to get a sample of participants that are truly independent in their decision making thoughts and processes.

Surowiecki in “The Wisdom of Crowds” states…

The more influence a group’s members exert on each other, and the more personal contact they  have with each other, the less likely the group’s decisions will be wise ones.
The more influence we exert on each other, the more likely it is that we believe the same things and make the same mistakes. That means that it’s possible that we could become individually smarter, but collectively dumber….

Can people make collectively  intelligent decisions even when they are in constant, even erratic contact with each other?

The theory can be extended to the application in small communities, (and I’ve been guilty of this as well!).

It actually may hinder decision making on the whole, when people, usually with good intentions, put forward their biased views in newspaper articles or on blog posts. As the crowd becomes more homogenous, one would think that the decision making would improve, but by removing the diversity of opinion, the effect may be that the community “becomes individually smarter, but collectively dumber”.

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If you actually care about the opinion of the common citizen, (and getting the best outcome), when it’s time to make a decision, maybe it’s best to hold back on sharing your opinion.

Here is a summary (thanks Wikipedia) of the way to harness the power of crowds in decision making…

The Wisdom of Crowds – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Diversity of opinion Each person should have private information even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
Independence People’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.
Decentralization People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.
Aggregation Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.

If a crowd’s opinion is already jaded by a vocal minority, the opportunity to practice the power of citizenry participation has been lost. That’s good to remember next time you feel like you need to lead the sheep away from the edge of a precipice.

[ad#200-left]Decision-making is tough at the best of times, but when it comes time to determine whether community consultation is an option remember the four states above that need top be present for a good decision to be made. The theories presented in this book are pretty compelling, and the author is careful to state the research that supports when and how crowd wisdom can occur.

How have you experienced crowd wisdom or ignorance in your world?

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

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