June 11, 2012
Lightning tears temple assunder.
Divine wrath, or natural disaster?
. . .
There was a seaside temple in India that was struck by lightning. That minor storm was the vanguard to a full hurricane that eventually ravaged the entire countryside. The old temple was split from its roof line to its foundations. One entire end of the building was parted from its body like a severed head. Was this karma? Was this the punishment of the gods? Or was it simply an old building and an unfortunate accident?
What you say shows your attitude about nature, reality, and whether you believe gods intervene in human affairs. If you insist that there was some reason that lightning cleaved the temple, then you live in a world where uncertainty is the by-product of some supreme being’s emotional whims. If, however, you accept this incident solely as a natural disaster, then you also accept random occurrences in life. Such a viewpoint does not preclude any notion of the divine, of course. It merely states that not everything in nature is administered by some heavenly bureaucracy.
It is simple fact that lightening split the temple. The meaning of this incident – if there is any – is determined by each person. One person regards it as a disaster, another as a good thing, while a third views it dispassionately. There is nothing inherent in the incident that dictates its meaning. It is enough that we all recognise that it happened.
. . .
by Deng Ming Dao
June 3, 2012
I’ve been away for a little while… Not literally, as in gone off to far flung land and had a grand adventure, nice (and distracting) though it does sound… But rather simply, I’ve been away from this blog… Which, to be fair, has been a very good exercise for me (in many ways). Leaving behind some of my compulsive computer habits in this telecommunication riddled world has been of enormous benefit to my general outlook on Life, if only because I’ve had the chance to rekindle some almost forgotten social narrative with similar, like minded folk who exist within my social circles of proximity and appear throughout my daily routines, rather than the slightly sterile communication that tends to occur with others through an unfathomable tangle of wires and wireless networks, using only written words and half meant phrases… No doubt, doing too much of the later, one can easily begin to loose sight of the subtlety found within bodily gestures of communication along with all the humbling fumbles that everyone experiences in life’s daily contiguity.
In fact, this journey outwards has afforded me the chance to understand a bit more about what it is exactly that I’ve been writing about here in this blog over the last few years. How? Because I’ve observed my ‘self’ wanting to conform to social pressures within various relationships so as to bond with those individuals more effectively, thus forging stronger emotional ties that should ensure a lasting union… And, yet, in the process of this seemingly natural biological imperative, I’ve found my notions of scientific understanding and general beliefs about the world in which I find myself slowly but surely being eroded as my values merge and morph into other people’s values. On many occasions I’ve felt helpless and overwhelmed by a selfish need to protect my ‘self’ from – what I can only call during these episodes – the “tyranny” of other people’s vagrant ideals. I know how arrogant that sounds… But still, it’s shown me a lot about my “self”… Not to mention how much practise it takes to remain settled in one’s own being and understanding without becoming too distracted by the outside world at large from achieving one’s own aims. Certainly, in today’s world, this situation seems to be all the more compounded by the intense memetic drive of ideas that we are all exposed to every single day, via every channel and medium of dissemination imaginable.
Perhaps it is no wonder why I find the idea of conformity such an important process to understand, especially when set back to back with the notion about the “Wisdom Of The Crowd.” As such, I would like to present an article written by a master who probed deeply the ideas behind the notions of what constituted conformity, Dr. S. Milgram. Originally published in Scientific American, this article discusses what Dr. Milgram found when subjecting the people of two European countries to various types of synthetic group pressures.
Which Nations Conform Most?
An account of Stanley Milgram’s experiments from 1962, in which Norwegians and Frenchmen were separately subjected to synthetic group pressure.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Volume 205, Number 6 of Scientific American in December 1961.
People who travel abroad seem to enjoy sending back reports on what people are like in various countries they visit. A variety of national stereotypes is part and parcel of popular knowledge. Italians are said to be “volatile,” Germans “hard-working,” the Dutch “clean,” the Swiss “neat,” the English “reserved,” and so on. The habit of making generalizations about national groups is not a modern invention. Byzantine war manuals contain careful notes on the deportment of foreign populations, and Americans still recognize themselves in the brilliant national portrait drawn by Alexis de Tocqueville more than 100 years ago.
And yet the sceptical student must always come back to the question: “How do I know that what is said about a foreign group is true?” Prejudice and personal bias may colour such accounts, and in the absence of objective evidence it is not easy to distinguish between fact and fiction. Thus the problem faced by the modern investigator who wishes to go beyond literary description is how to make an objective analysis of behavioural differences among national groups. By this he means simply an analysis that is not based on subjective judgements and that can be verified by any competent investigator who follows the same methods.
It is easy to show objectively that people in different countries often speak different languages, eat different foods and observe different social customs. But can one go further and show national differences in “character” or “personality”? When we turn to the more subtle dimensions of behaviour, there is very little evidence to make a case for national differences. It is not that such differences are to be denied out of hand; it is just that we lack sufficient reliable information to make a clear judgement.
Before reporting the results of my own study let me refer briefly to some earlier efforts to achieve objectivity in studying this elusive problem. One approach has been to examine the literature and other cultural products of a nation in the hope of identifying underlying psychological characteristics. For example, Donald V. McGranahan of Harvard University studied successful stage plays performed in Germany and the U.S. and concluded that German stage characters were more devoted to principles and ideological notions, whereas the Americans were more concerned with the attainment of purely personal satisfactions. The obvious limitation of such a study is that the behaviour and attitudes under examination are the synthetic ones of the stage and may bear little or no resemblance to those of real life.
Another indirect approach has relied on the tools of clinical psychology. This method was pioneered by anthropologists in the study of small, primitive societies and has only recently been applied to modern urban nations. These studies rely heavily on such tests as the Rorschach ink-blot test and the thematic apperception test (T.A.T.). In the latter the subject is shown a drawing of a situation that can be variously interpreted and is asked to make up a story about it. The major difficulty here is that the tests themselves have not been adequately validated and are basically impressionistic.
Finally, sample surveys of the type developed by Elmo Roper and George Gallup in this country have been applied to the problem. Geoffrey Gorer, an English social scientist, based his study Exploring English Character on a questionnaire distributed to 11,000 of his compatriots. The questions dealt with varied aspects of English life, such as courtship patterns, experiences in school and practices in the home. Unfortunately there are many reasons why an individual’s answer may not correspond to the facts. He may deliberately distort his answers to produce a good impression, or he may have genuine misconceptions of his own behaviour, attributable either to faulty memory or to the blindness people often exhibit toward their own actions and motivations.
These methods should not be dismissed as unimportant in the study of national characteristics: Yet in principle if one wants to know whether the people of one nation behave differently from those of another, it would seem only reasonable to examine the relevant behavior directly, and to do so under conditions of controlled observations in order to reduce the effects of personal bias and to make measurement more precise.
An important step in this direction was reported in 1954 by an international team of psychologists who worked together as the Organization for Comparative Social Research. This team studied reactions to threat and rejection among school children in seven European nations, using hypotheses advanced by Stanley Schachter of Columbia University. The inquiry was not specifically designed to study national characteristics but chiefly to see if certain concepts regarding threat and rejection would hold up when tested in different countries. In the course of the study certain differences between countries did turn up, but the investigators felt they were not necessarily genuine. Conceivably they were due to defects in the experiment or to inadequacies in the theory behind it. Although its focus was on theory validation, this study is a landmark in cross-national research. Unfortunately the Organization for Comparative Social Research halted its research program when the study was completed.
My own investigation was begun in 1957. My objective was to see if experimental techniques could be applied to the study of national characteristics, and in particular to see if one could measure conformity in two European countries: Norway and France. Conformity was chosen for several reasons. First, a national culture can be said to exist only if men adhere, or conform, to common standards of behaviour; this is the psychological mechanism underlying all cultural behaviour. Second, conformity has become a burning issue in much of current social criticism; critics have argued that people have become too sensitive to the opinions of others, and that this represents an unhealthy development in modern society. Finally, good experimental methods have been developed for measuring conformity.
The chief tool of investigation was a modified form of the group-pressure experiment used by Solomon E. Asch and other social psychologists [see "Opinions and Social Pressure," by Solomon E. Asch, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, November, 1955]. In Asch’s original experiment a group of half a dozen subjects was shown a line of a certain length and asked to say which of three other lines matched it. All but one of the subjects had been secretly instructed beforehand to select one of the “wrong” lines on each trial or in a certain percentage of the trials. The naive subject was so placed that he heard the answers of most of the group before he had to announce his own decision. Asch found that under this form of social pressure a large fraction of subjects went along with the group rather than accept the unmistakable evidence of their own eyes.
Our experiment is conducted with acoustic tones rather than with lines drawn on cards. Five of the subjects are confederates of the experimenter and conspire to put social pressure on the sixth subject. The subjects listen to two tones and are asked to say which is the longer. The five confederates answer first and their decisions are heard by the subject, who answers last. The confederates have been instructed to announce wrong answers on 16 of the 30 trials that constitute one experiment.
We elected to use tones rather than lines because they are better suited to an experimental method using “synthetic groups.” Two psychologists working at Yale University, Robert Blake and Jack W. Brehm, had discovered that group pressure experiments can be conducted without requiring the actual presence of confederates. It is sufficient if the subject thinks they are present and hears their voices through headphones. With tape recordings it is easy to create synthetic groups. Tapes do not have to be paid by the hour and they are always available.
When the test subject entered our laboratory, he saw several coats on hangers and immediately got the impression that others were present. He was taken to one of six closed booths, where he was provided with headphones and a microphone. As he listened to the instructions through the headphones he overheard the voices of the other “subjects” and assumed that all the booths were occupied. During the actual experiment he would hear five taped answers before he was asked to give his own.
Except when we made a technical slip the subject never caught on to the trick. Most subjects became deeply involved in the situation, and strong tensions were generated when they realized they must stand alone against five unanimous opponents. This situation created a genuine and deeply felt conflict that had to be resolved either through independence or conformity.
Once we had refined our techniques at Harvard University we were ready to experiment abroad with Norwegian and French subjects. In which of the two national environments would people go along with the group more and in which would there be greater independence?
Most of the subjects used in the Norwegian study were students attending the University of Oslo. Because this is the only full-fledged university in Norway, a good geographic representation was obtained. Our test sample included students from beyond the Arctic Circle, from the fiord country of western Norway and from Trondheim, the former Viking capital.
When the study moved to Paris, French students were selected who matched the Norwegians in age, level of education, fields of study, sex, marital status and-so far as possible-social class. Once again a good geographic distribution was obtained, because students from all parts of France came to study in Paris. A few of the French subjects came from French North African cities. Those used in the experiment were culturally as French as people living on the mainland; they were of French parentage and had been educated in French lycees.
In Norway the entire experiment was conducted by a native Norwegian and all the recorded voices were those of natives. In France the experiments were conducted by native Frenchmen. Much effort was made to match the tone and quality of the Norwegian and French groups. We made many recordings until people who were sensitive to the nuances of both languages were satisfied that equivalent group atmospheres had been achieved.
Twenty Norwegian subjects and the same number of French subjects were studied in the first set of experiments. The Norwegian subjects conformed to the group on 62 per cent of the critical trials (that is, trials in which the group deliberately voted wrong); the French subjects conformed to the group on 50 per cent of the critical trials.
After each subject had taken part in the experiment he was told its true character and was asked to give his reactions. Almost all participants in both countries had accepted the experiment at face value and admitted feeling the strong pressure of the group. A Norwegian student from a farm in Nordland, above the Arctic Circle, said: “I think the experiment had a very ingenious arrangement. I had no idea about the setup until it was explained to me. Of course, it was a little embarrassing to be exposed in such a way.” A self-critical student from Oslo remarked: “It was a real trick and I was stupid to have fallen into the trap….It must be fun to study psychology.” Similar reactions were obtained in France, where students were impressed with the idea of psychological experimentation. (In neither country is psychological research as widespread or as intensive as it is in the U.S., so that subjects are relatively unsophisticated about psychological deceptions.)
It would have been superficial, of course, to conduct just one experiment in Norway, another in France and then draw conclusions. In a second experiment we undertook to change the subject’s attitude toward the importance of the experiment itself to see if this might alter the original findings. In this new series of trials (and in all subsequent ones) the subjects were told that the results of the experiments would be applied to the design of aircraft safety signals. In this way their performance was linked to a life-and-death issue. As one might have predicted, the subjects this time showed somewhat greater independence of the group, but once again the level of conformity was higher in Norway (56 per cent) than it was in France (48 per cent).
One possibility that had to be considered at the outset was that Norwegians and Frenchmen differ in their capacity for discriminating tonal lengths and that this led to the greater number of errors made by Norwegians in the group situation. We were able to show, however, by giving each subject a tone-discrimination test, that there was no difference in the level of discrimination of students in the two countries.
In both of the first two conformity experiments the subjects were required to do more than decide an issue in the face of unanimous opposition: they were also required to announce that decision openly for all to hear (or so the subject thought). Thus the act had the character of a public statement. We all recognize that the most obvious forms of conformity are the public ones. For example, when prevailing standards of dress or conduct are breached, the reaction is usually immediate and critical. So we decided we had better see if the Norwegians conformed more only under public conditions, when they had to declare their answers aloud. Accordingly, we undertook an experiment in both countries in which the subject was allowed to record his answers on paper rather than announce them to the group. The experiments were performed with a new group of 20 Norwegian and 20 French students.
When the requirement of a public response was eliminated, the amount of conformity dropped considerably in both countries. But for the third time the French subjects were more independent than the Norwegians. In Paris students went along with the group on 34 per cent of the critical trials. In Oslo the figure was close to 50 per cent. Therefore elimination of the requirement of a public response reduced conformity 14 percentage points in France but only 6 percentage points in Norway.
It is very puzzling that the Norwegians so often voted with the group, even when given a secret ballot. One possible interpretation is that the average Norwegian, for whatever reason, believes that his private action will ultimately become known to others. Interviews conducted among the Norwegians offer some indirect evidence for this conjecture. In spite of the assurances that the responses would be privately analysed, one subject said he feared that because he had disagreed too often the experimenter would assemble the group and discuss the disagreements with them.
Another Norwegian subject, who had agreed with the group 12 out of 16 times, offered this explanation: “In the world now, you have to be not too much in opposition. In high school I was more independent than now. It’s the modern way of life that you have to agree a little more. If you go around opposing, you might be looked upon as bad. Maybe this had an influence.” He was then asked, “Even though you were answering in private?” and he replied, “Yes. I tried to put myself in a public situation, even though I was sitting in the booth in private.”
A fourth experiment was designed to test the sensitivity of Norwegian and French subjects to a further aspect of group opinion. What would happen if subjects were exposed to overt and audible criticism from the conspiratorial group? It seemed reasonable to expect a higher degree of conformity under these conditions. On the other hand, active criticism might conceivably lead to a greater show of independence. Moreover, the Norwegians might react one way and the French another. Some of my associates speculated that audible criticism would merely serve to annoy the French subjects and make them stubborn and more resistant to the influence of the group.
To test these notions we recorded a number of appropriate reactions that we could switch on whenever the subject gave a response that contradicted the majority. The first sanction, in both Norway and France, was merely a slight snicker by a member of the majority. The other sanctions were more severe. In Norway they were based on the sentence “Skal du stikke deg ut?” which may be translated: “Are you trying to show off?” Roughly equivalent sentences were used with the French group. In Paris, when the subject opposed the group, he might hear through his headphones:
“Voulez-vous vous faire remarquer?” (“Trying to be conspicuous?”)
In both Norway and France this overt social criticism Significantly increased conformity. In France subjects now went along with the majority on 59 per cent of the critical trials. In Norway the percentage rose to 75 per cent. But the reactions of subjects in the two countries was even more striking. In Norway subjects accepted the criticism impassively. In France, however, more than half the subjects made some retaliatory response of their own when the group criticized them. Two French students, one from the Vosges mountain district and the other from the Department of Eure-et-Loire, became so enraged they directed a stream of abusive language at their taunters.
Even after we explained in the interview session that the entire experimental procedure had been recorded on tape, many of the subjects did not believe us. They could not understand how we could interject comments with such verisimilitude, particularly since we could not predict how they would respond at any given moment. This was achieved by making use of two tape recorders. One played the standard tape containing tones and the group judgements, with “dead” time for the subject; the other contained only the set of “criticisms ” from members of the group. The two instruments could be controlled independently, allowing us to inject a remark whenever the subject’s responses made it appropriate. The remarks followed the subject’s independent responses immediately, creating a highly spontaneous effect.
Another series of experiments was designed to aid in the interpretation of the earlier findings. For example, many Norwegian subjects rationalized their behaviour by stating in the interview that they went along with the others because they doubted their own judgement, and that if they had been given a chance to dispel this doubt they would have been more independent. An experiment was therefore carried out to test this notion. The subject was given a chance to re-examine the stimulus materials before giving his final judgement. He did this by sounding a bell in his booth whenever he wished to hear a pair of tones again. As before, the subject was openly censured by the group if he failed to conform, but he was not censured merely for asking to hear the tones repeated. It turned out that even the relatively simple act of requesting a repetition must be construed as an act of considerable independence. Only five of the Norwegians asked for a repetition of a tone on any trial, whereas 14 of the French subjects were “bold” enough to do so. And again the French showed more independence over-all, voting with the group on 58 per cent of the critical trials, compared with 69 per cent for the Norwegians.
The study next moved out of the university and into the factory. When we tested 40 Norwegian industrial workers, we found that their level of conformity was about the same as that of the Norwegian students. There was, however, one important difference. Students were often tense and agitated during the experiment. The industrial workers took it all with good humour and frequently were amused when the true nature of the experiment was explained. We have not yet managed to study a comparable group of industrial workers in France.
No matter how the data are examined they point to greater independence among the French than among the Norwegians. Twelve per cent of the Norwegian students conformed to the group on every one of the 16 critical trials, while only 1 per cent of the French conformed on every occasion. Forty-one per cent of the French students but only 25 per cent of the Norwegians displayed strong independence. And in every one of the five experiments performed in both countries the French showed themselves to be the more resistant to group pressure.
These findings are by no means conclusive. Rather they must be regarded as the beginning of an inquiry that one would like to see extended. But incomplete as the findings are, they are likely to be far more reliable than armchair speculation on national character.
It is useful, nevertheless, to see if the experimental results are compatible with a nation’s culture as one can observe it in daily life. If there were a conflict between the experimental findings and one’s general impressions, further experiments and analysis would be called for until the conflict had been resolved. Conceivably the discrepancy might be due to viewing the culture through a screen of stereotypes and prejudices rather than seeing it with a clear eye. In any case, in our study experiment and observation seem to be in reasonable agreement. For whatever the evidence may be worth, I will offer my own impressions of the two countries under examination.
I found Norwegian society highly cohesive. Norwegians have a deep feeling of group identification, and they are strongly attuned to the needs and interests of those around them. Their sense of social responsibility finds expression in formidable institutions for the care and protection of Norwegian citizens. The heavy taxation required to support broad programs of social welfare is borne willingly. It would not be surprising to find that social cohesiveness of this sort goes hand in hand with a high degree of Conformity.
Compared with the Norwegians, the French show far less consensus in both social and political life. The Norwegians have made do with a single constitution, drafted in 1814, while the French have not been able to achieve political stability within the framework of four republics. Though I hardly propose this as a general rule of social psychology, it seems true that the extreme diversity of opinion found in French national life asserts itself also on a more intimate scale. There is a tradition of dissent and critical argument that seeps down to the local bistro. The high value placed on critical judgement often seems to go beyond reasonable bounds; this in itself could account for the comparatively low degree of conformity we found in the French experiments. Furthermore, as Stanley Schachter has shown, the chronic existence of a wide range of opinion helps to free the individual from social pressure. Much the same point is made in recent studies of U.S. voting behaviour. They reveal that the more a person is exposed to diverse viewpoints, the more likely he is to break away from the voting pattern of his native group. All these factors would help to explain the relatively independent judgements shown by French students.
The experiments demonstrate, in any case, that social conformity is not exclusively a U.S. phenomenon, as some critics would have us believe. Some amount of conformity would seem necessary to the functioning of any social system. The problem is to strike the right balance between individual initiative and social authority.
One may ask whether or not national borders really provide legitimate boundaries for the study of behavioural differences. My feeling is that boundaries are useful only to the extent to which they coincide with cultural, environmental or biological divisions. In many cases boundaries are themselves a historical recognition of common cultural practice. Furthermore, once boundaries are established they tend to set limits of their own on social communication.
For all this, a comparison of national cultures should not obscure the enormous variations in behaviour within a single nation. Both the Norwegians and the French displayed a full range of behaviour from complete independence to complete conformity. Probably there is no significant national comparison in which the extent of overlap does not approach or match the extent of differences. This should not prevent us, however, from trying to establish norms and statistically valid generalizations on behaviour in different nations.
We are now planning further research in national characteristics. In a recent seminar at Yale University students were given the task of trying to identify behavioural characteristics that might help to illuminate the Nazi epoch in German history. The principal suggestions were that Germans might be found to be more aggressive than Americans, to submit more readily to authority and to display greater discipline. Whether these assumptions will hold up under experimental inquiry is an open question. A team of German and American investigators is planning a series of experiments designed to provide a comparative measure of behaviour in the two countries.
by Stanley Milgram
To find out where I sourced this article, please click here.
Or to find out more about Stanley Milgram, please click here.
June 2, 2012
. . .
A few months back I watched a three part BBC documentary, entitled “The Code.” In this documentary Professor Marcus du Sautoy – the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science – discussed and demonstrated how our world is underpinned by a myriad of patterns and rhythms, all of which inter-react and inter-relate to one another in sometimes obvious, but mainly not so obvious, ways… However, when we logically work through these anomalies via modes of mathematical inquiry, after much study (so as not to make assumptions based on pure inference alone) we can quite discernibly trace out the workings behind most of their seemingly undefinable methods of unfolding. Thus, through this penetrating gaze of mathematical scrutiny, we can tell a lot about the processes of the world in which we live… As well as how we ourselves – as biological systems that are also based on mathematical unfolding – relate to the world around us.
While my partner is undoubtedly not a fan of Professor du Sautoy – mainly because of what she calls his slightly fanatical slant on how everything mathematical is so utterly amazing and, thus, must be the ‘main’ (if not, only) reason why we are all here – I must say that I still rather enjoy the way he meditates upon complex mathematical subjects and, yet, still manages to bring across a deeply penetrating and intricate understanding about how many universal processes – most of which seem to have no obvious explanation – function and unfold around us and/or within us in such a way that even a layman could grasp the blatant consequence of what these little insights demonstrate to us about our place here in the cosmos.
Still, quirky mannerisms aside, there is one important point in particular that Professor du Sautoy decidedly highlights in this series… One that, at least for me, seems to conspicuously stand apart from the rest. Why? Because it is a finding that, in my eyes, shows us how important everyone’s perspective here on Earth actually is to everyone else, no matter how outlandish or wild it might sound or seem… Especially to those of us who are looking for an answer to something specific.
But, more to the point, what probably makes this point even more fascinating for me is the fact that… Perhaps if it is used wisely by us all, it might allow every human being to gain a more accurate and compassionate insight into many of the most important questions that we all have concerning our existence here on Earth… About what our consciousness actually is… Along with how we perceive ourselves via processes of mind in the daily experience of being human. I mean… What more ‘just’ and ‘ethical’ a way to achieve a better understanding about who we are, than to ask for every individual’s perspective on the subject… Doing so, regardless of how absurd it may sound to any one of us from our own perspective… ?
Sure… To some it might well sound like a recipe for total disaster… One that could only blur and obfuscate our vision of what unknown quantity might actually be… I mean, can you imagine the notion of a God in an atheist’s understanding of how the world came about? Or how Darwin’s ideas on evolution well might go down at creationist meeting? But, even so, this process of asking everyone their opinion never seems to throw the accuracy of any answer derived from this process out. In fact, only when every answer is taken into account, does the accuracy of such a method become clear. And, for me, it is this very fact that demonstrates how all encompassing this method might well be for providing answers to some of the most important questions we could ask.
Perhaps I would even go so far as to say that, because of the promise that this idea holds for finding many accurate interpretations to many of Life’s conundrums and anomalies (Gods, scientific facts, philosophical conundrums, legends, myths and all the more) for us all, we should perhaps be as aware of it as we are of anything that we hold in high esteem and/or regard… Because, by coming together and placing our views into a melting pot of difference, no matter how disparate these views might well seem when set against one another’s… We should always achieve an answer that would be more accurately reflective of what is the actual case… And, thus, when everyone’s view is taken into account, we should all also be able to relate to the answer better, knowing we’ve had a part to play in its unfolding. Thus, if we decide to at least understand this process a bit better, we might well be afforded a slightly better insight into how our world is created (in all aspects), as well as functions… And, so, will have everything to gain… And little to loose… !
This point, which I hope I have not blown too much out of proportion, is somewhat obviously and rather simply called the “Wisdom Of The Crowd.” And before I say any more on the subject, I will introduce this idea properly by presenting a clip from the documentary in question… One that demonstrates this phenomenon in action and the principles behind it.
. . .
. . .
So… “The Wisdom Of The Crowd” refers to a process of taking into account the overall collective opinion of a group of individuals, rather than relying on a single expert to answer a particular question. Reason being that a large group’s aggregated answers to particular questions involving quantity estimation, general world knowledge, and spatial reasoning have generally been found to be as good as, and often better than, the answer given by any isolated individuals within the group. An intuitive and often-cited explanation for this phenomenon is that there is idiosyncratic noise associated with each individuals judgement – noise that stems from the varied and multifarious individual experiences that each person has had specifically in their lifetime – and so, taking the average over a large number of responses, usually goes some way towards cancelling the effect of this noise completely.
Bearing this point in mind… When I come across people (as I have done quite a bit of late) who clearly state that they are either atheist or religious, or whatever group it is that they feel they belong to concerning some form of ideology or another… And procure an answer to some question posed that befits – from their own self-imposed view of the world – a way of thinking that the rest of the world would be best advised to adhere to… I find myself somewhat stumped. Why? Because through all the various modes of investigation that each and every individual is presently embarking upon (or not embarking upon)… Whether through the pursuit of science at a university or in a research institute… Or by striving for enlightenment while sitting in a cave (as Milarepa once did)… Or even looking to express something of Life’s wondrous magic while painting picture after picture… The very act of trying to understand what it is that we actually are – and, thus, what should be doing in respect to the whole greater picture of universal understanding, for the betterment of all – can, and should only, be properly answered (in my humble opinion) by all of us together as One.
Regardless of all the disputes that have recently come to light between all the multifarious modes of varied understanding in this memetic world of ours (whether in the name of scientific reasoning or by way of religious practise) and all the pain and aggravation that these extremist opinions and views (views that seem to always exclude someone else’s view somewhere down the line) seem to cause… They matter not a damn without another person’s validation. And even though I have rarely heard people discussing the possibility that perhaps there could be a bit of truth in each and every one of our own individual views just as much as there may be truth in someone else’s views… Perhaps we might do well to begin to understand the role that our own opinions play within the crowd of people in which we live (a crowd that is fast becoming the largest here on Earth) and thus allow ourselves all a little more room to accommodate each other’s opinions into our own egocentric speculations, even if many do sound like they could be way out there.
Still, despite the positive implications that this normalising effect ‘might’ have for us all when directing us towards an all pervading truth (and I only say ‘might’), there is much to be careful of when considering an issue as complex as this… Just as Larissa Conradt notes in her article below, entitled “Collective Behaviour: When It Pays To Share Decisions.”
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Collective Behaviour: When It Pays To Share Decisions
Theory suggests that the accuracy of a decision often increases with the number of decision makers, a phenomenon exploited by betting agents, Internet search engines and stock markets. Fish also use this ‘wisdom of the crowd’ effect.
Having trouble making a decision? The reason is that you’re probably not sure which is the best option. You seldom have perfect information, so might make a bad choice. Sharing decisions with others can help, because several decision makers can pool their information, and also eliminate individual errors. Consequently, the risk of making a mistake and settling on a bad option often decreases with the number of decision makers. For example, in court cases, juries consisting of several people are supposed to make correct decisions more often than can a single judge. In humans, there are numerous examples of this phenomenon. In social animals, the same principle should apply, but empirical demonstrations are rare.
Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ward et al. now show that larger shoals of fish not only make more-accurate decisions than do smaller shoals or single fish, but also make these decisions faster. In an elegantly designed experiment, combined with theoretical modelling, the authors gave mosquitofish, Gambusia holbrooki, a choice between a predator-free route and one that led past a predator model. A fish was more likely to make a correct choice (to avoid the predator model) the larger the shoal in which it swam. The size of this increase in accuracy was in close agreement with theoretical predictions. The effect did not arise because large shoals were more likely to contain one particularly clever ‘expert’ fish, which guided the others. In fact, individual fish did not differ much in their ability to make correct decisions and, moreover, were not even good at it. Thus, the authors have demonstrated a genuine ‘wisdom of the crowd’ (or, in biological terms, ‘many eyes’) effect (Fig. 1).
The increase in decision speed with shoal size is especially noteworthy, for two reasons. First, we typically expect a trade-off between decision accuracy and speed, so that decision speed decreases with increasing accuracy and vice versa. This is because more-accurate decisions usually require more information, and information gathering takes time. Second, we expect decision speed to decrease with the number of decision makers, because sharing decisions requires communication between decision makers and it seems plausible that this will also take time. Nevertheless, Ward and colleagues found that both decision speed and decision accuracy increased with the number of decision makers (that is, the number of fish in the shoal).
The reason that larger shoals managed to make not only more accurate but also faster decisions probably lies in the way information is communicated. Fish in shoals often move in a self-organized manner, whereby individuals react rapidly to the movements of close neighbours. Indeed, Ward et al. present convincing evidence that such a reaction to spatially close companions has a crucial role in the mosquitofish choice of route — pairs of fish within less than 6 centimetres of each other reacted very fast to each other’s movement changes; and a fish’s choice of route depended significantly on the average choice of close companions.
This simultaneous, self-organized system of ‘communication’ has two important features. One is that the speed with which information is exchanged is high and hardly decreases with the number of fish in the shoal. The other is that communication is decentralized: that is, information transfer can start from any shoal member. This means that overall decision speed depends crucially on the fastest decision maker(s) within the shoal. For stochastic reasons, a large shoal is more likely than a small one to contain a fish that, by chance, detects a predator relatively quickly, even if the fish do not differ in ‘expertise’.
In short, the higher likelihood of a shoal containing a fast decision maker, coupled with swift, decentralized information transfer, could explain the increase in decision speed with shoal size. However, such fast decision making usually also involves a cost, namely that of an increased risk of false positives. That is, if the fastest decision maker made a mistake (and ‘detected’ a predator that did not exist), this mistake could also be amplified, and the group might stage a costly ‘escape’ when none was necessary. The experiments of Ward and colleagues did not allow for such a situation — there was always one predator model present, and fish could either avoid it (true positive) or not (false negative). It remains to be seen whether accuracy and speed of decision making still increase together if fish are faced with a situation in which false positives are possible.
Fast and accurate decision making is highly desirable in many walks of life, for humans as well as animals. Ward and colleagues’ study shows that it can be achieved by sharing decisions widely and using a self-organized system of communication. This is, of course, exactly the strategy that has long been exploited by Internet search engines, and in this sense the mosquitofish of Ward and co-workers’ experiments are not that dissimilar from Google.
However, there are three caveats about the benefits of decision sharing. First, if the abilities of potential decision makers vary widely, it might still be better to listen to one ‘expert’. Second, there is the danger of information cascades, whereby decision makers no longer contribute independent information but instead amplify shared misconceptions. Finally, in many decisions, the goals of individual decision makers differ: that is, different members of the decision-making group favour different outcomes. In such a context, the sharing of decisions can have disadvantages as well as advantages. Although sharing might still increase the available information, it can also hand influence on the outcome to decision makers whose goals differ from your own. To date, surprisingly little is known about good decision-making strategies in these kinds of conflict situations.
by Larissa Conradt – the Department of Biology, School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QG, UK.
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I feel that Larissa Conradt’s article touches on a interesting tonic to my over zealous feelings about the general “Wisdom of the Crowd”… A wisdom that apparently belongs to the humans that have recently gathered here on Earth… As she points out with regards to “false positives” relating to the decision making of mosquitofish shoals when avoiding predators, there seems – at least for me – to be a very striking and obvious similarity that parallels our own human behaviour relating to climate change and how we react to it so as to avoid any certain catastrophic consequences.
Has mankind inadvertently stumbled into a dangerous media driven frenzy of misconstrued memetic deformities? A frenzy that seems to be propagated by the few decision makers who don’t really have all the facts at their finger tips and, thus, seem to lack the general knowledge needed to guide them away from assumptions that can only be based on pure inference alone… ? I dare say that this is a very important question that needs to be answered, especially in today’s global climate of well read and well educated, media savvy inhabitants. Why? Because many of these so-called decision makers are unwitting enough not to realise the power they weld with their writing and words. Nor do the majority of these people even realise that they are acting as decision makers for many of us… In fact, I am usually only too shocked to find out how many people make decisions based on these inadvertent decision maker’s opinions.
The most powerful of these inadvertent decision makers hold esteemed positions, such as writers and reporters, in the great publishing houses and corporations of our world (whether magazines, newspapers or even television) and, having graduated in the ideals of journalism and, thus, completely having missed out the immense importance of data-analysis and/or the psychology behind misconstruing evidence or even philosophical reasoning… They do the people of the world today the greatest disservice by merely amplifying shared misconceptions about whether or not important issues such as climate change and over-population should really be addressed with the urgency that we should… As I’ve said before, our human actions are indeed bigger than all the butter fly wings in the world flapping gently on the winds while procreating… And, as such, we are on the brink of irreversibly upsetting our world’s chaotic weather patterns beyond repair. Chaos is too sensitive to this kind of brunt outburst of carelessness.
Thus I would recommend that the findings of Ward’s research into the decision making behaviour of mosquitofish should be greatly encouraged and the findings be mirrored against mankind’s present decision making strategies to overcome any assuming notions based on inference alone and, so, steer us better into future times with the a more guided view to the “Wisdom of the Crowd.”
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To find out more about the BBC documentary called “The Code,” please click here.
Or to read more about “The Wisdom Of The Crowd,” please click here.
And to find out where I sourced the Nature article from, please click here.