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Does Social Media “Dumb Down” the Wisdom of Crowds?

We assume that democracy is the gold standard of sustainable political social contracts. And it’s hard to argue against that. As Winston Churchill said, “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”

Democracy may not be perfect, but it works. Or, at least, it seems to work better than all the other options. Essentially, democracy depends on probability – on being right more often than we’re wrong.

At the very heart of democracy is the principle of majority rule. And that is based on something called Jury Theorem, put forward by the Marquis de Condorcet in his 1785 work, Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Majority Decisions. Essentially, it says that the probability of making the right decision increases when you average the decisions of as many people as possible. This was the basis of James Suroweicki’s 2004 book, The Wisdom of Crowds.

But here’s the thing about the wisdom of crowds – it only applies when those individual decisions are reached independently. Once we start influencing each other’s decision, that wisdom disappears. And that makes social psychologist Solomon Asch’s famous conformity experiments of 1951 a disturbingly significant fly in the ointment of democracy.

You’re probably all aware of the seminal study, but I’ll recap anyway. Asch gathered groups of people and showed them a card with three lines of obviously different lengths. Then he asked participants which line was the closest to the reference line. The answer was obvious – even a toddler can get this test right pretty much every time.

But unknown to the test subject, all the rest of the participants were “stooges” – actors paid to sometimes give an obviously incorrect answer. And when this happened, Asch was amazed to find that the test subjects often went against the evidence of their own eyes just to conform with the group. When wrong answers were given, a third of the subjects always conformed, 75% of the subjects conformed at least once, and only 25% stuck to the evidence in front of them and gave the right answer.

The results baffled Asch. The most interesting question to him was why this was happening. Were people making a decision to go against their better judgment – choosing to go with the crowd rather than what they were seeing with their own eyes? Or was something happening below the level of consciousness? This was something Solomon Asch wondered about right until his death in 1996. Unfortunately, he never had the means to explore the question further.

But, in 2005, a group of researchers at Emory University, led by Gregory Berns, did have a way. Here, Asch’s experiment was restaged, only this time participants were in a fMRI machine so Bern and his researchers could peak at what was actually happening in their brains. The results were staggering.

They found that conformity actually changes the way our brain works. It’s not that we change what we say to conform with what others are saying, despite what we see with our own eyes. What we see is changed by what others are saying.

If, Berns and his researchers reasoned, you were consciously making a decision to go against the evidence of your own eyes just to conform with the group, you should see activity in the frontal areas of our brain that are engaged in monitoring conflicts, planning and other higher-order mental activities.

But that isn’t what they found. In those participants that went along with obviously incorrect answers from the group, the parts of the brain that showed activity were only in the posterior parts of the brain – those that control spatial awareness and visual perception. There was no indication of an internal mental conflict. The brain was actually changing how it processed the information it was receiving from the eyes.

This is stunning. It means that conformity isn’t a conscious decision. Our desire to conform is wired so deeply in our brains, it actually changes how we perceive the world. We never have the chance to be objectively right, because we never realize we’re wrong.

But what about those that went resisted conformity and stuck to the evidence they were seeing with their own eyes? Here again, the results were fascinating. The researchers found that in these cases, they saw a spike of activity in the right amygdala and right caudate nucleus – areas involved in the processing of strong emotions, including fear, anger and anxiety. Those that stuck to the evidence of their own eyes had to overcome emotional hurdles to do so. In the published paper, the authors called this the “pain of independence.”

This study highlights a massively important limitation in the social contract of democracy. As technology increasingly imposes social conformity on our culture, we lose the ability to collectively make the right decision. Essentially, is shows that this effect not only erases the wisdom of crowds, but actively works against it by exacting an emotional price for being an independent thinker.