“The wisdom of crowds” has been a popular phrase since James Surowiecki’s book was published in 2004. I have heard it used in conversation a few times, usually to stress a point that crowds are better than experts in just about every scenario. That isn’t entirely true and last night’s TV provided two perfect examples…

The book makes a very clear point about crowd behaviour:

A group of people… is far more likely to come up with a good decision if the people in the group are independent of each other.

This is no small challenge – groups are usually sustained by the relationships between members of the group. Those relationships (and the hierarchies they support) can make independence non-existent. You can take the quote further – any size of crowd is only likely to come up with a good decision if all bias and influence are removed. And that isn’t just a big challenge, in this networked world of ours it can be an impossibility.

Example #1: The UK record of the year

This show was about a public ‘phone vote for the record of the year. There were 5 contenders in the final running. At least three of them (I think) had written their songs (Black-eyed Peas, James Blunt, Daniel Powter), not sure about the 4th (McFly), but at least their song was original. Did any of these 4 win? Did they hecks. How can you when you’re up against West Life doing yet another cover of a smoochy ballad? West Life have a huge fan base, who probably spent half the night hitting ‘redial’ on their telephones. The crowd is neither independent or unbiased. Did they honestly select the song because they believed it to be musically superior to the other 4 contenders? I think any one of the five songs could have been attributed to West Life and they would still have won. So much for the title of the show…

Example #2: The X-Factor

This show also relied on a public ‘phone vote. Same outcome but a completely different situation. This time you had 4 contenders and the one with the lowest vote leaves the competition. But these contenders are all unknowns meaning there is no loyal fan base to influence the vote. How could it not be fair? All 4 contenders are talented but there were two who performed flawlessly and received high praise from the judges. Then there were two who didn’t perform so well and were criticised by some of the judges… and so the bias appears. Any show involving judges and audience votes is prone to becoming the revenge of the crowd. Everyone loves supporting the underdog.

The part of the show I saw started with the presenter saying ‘just 24 votes separate the bottom two acts’. That comment likely influenced the remaining votes – the focus was placed on the acts likely to be in the bottom two. And what happened? The two you would expect to have been at the bottom filled the top 2 places. The two who performed the best ended up at the bottom. And the one who everyone thought was a certainty to reach the final, “best singer this country has ever produced” according to the judges, could not possibly be in need of another 24 votes… Yup, you guessed it – she was shown the exit. The best ended up last because everyone assumed she had enough votes… crowds aren’t always wise.

(In both cases, the studio audience started to boo when the results were announced – that’s good ol’ hindsight for you, when wisdom has a habit of sticking its tongue out.)

The Wisdom of the Crowds‘ is a great book and well worth reading but as quotes go, it’s as misused as ‘Good to Great‘ (also a very good book)

[Should add a disclaimer: I didn’t actually see either show in its entirety, just saw enough to witness the wisdom of hindsight in action.]

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