Blink and The Wisdom of Crowds

Challenging the Standard Model of Decision-Making
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 10 2005 2:35 PM

Blink and The Wisdom of Crowds

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Hi, Jim

You are quite right to find this format a little strange. Authors don't usually get to discuss their own books, since that (quite rightly) raises the possibility that the discussion will be less than objective. The difference between a book discussion involving outsiders and a book discussion involving the writers themselves is a bit like the difference between Olympic wrestling and pro wrestling. (Then again, pro wrestling is an awful lot more entertaining than Olympic wrestling, so clearly there is something to be said for contests where the outcome is preordained.)

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Let me say something about your book, which I think is a good way of answering your questions about mine. In The Wisdom of Crowds you make a series of observations about decision-making; the first (and, to my mind, most radical) one is that the collective wisdom of a crowd (even a crowd of laypeople) can be more accurate and more sophisticated than the individual decision of an expert. You have lots of examples of this. But let me provide a hypothetical one. We know that reading an X-ray (for instance, a mammogram) is really, really hard. The Wisdom of Crowds argument suggests that we might be better off having an individual X-ray read by 1,000 people—who might have only a modest degree of training in radiology—than a single, board-certified radiologist. So, we might take a village in China, put 1,000 people in a room after a month or so of training, send them digital mammograms over the Internet to interpret at $1 a screen, and then aggregate their conclusion. And the combined judgments of that village might yield a better conclusion than paying one U.S. radiologist, with years of training under his belt, $1,000 to read the same screen.

Now, let's assume that this is true. (And, I'd be curious to know, incidentally, whether you think that's a reasonable extrapolation from your argument.) There are two interesting implications here. The first is that you are explicitly challenging what might be called the Standard Model of decision-making. We have an awful lot invested, as a culture, in the notion that the best results in complex environments come from centralizing authority in the hands of a single, highly expert, and deliberative individual. But that, you would argue, is wrong. We're actually better off decentralizing decision-making into the hands of the many—even if they are relatively nonexpert and even if their decision-making process is much less deliberate.

This is where, I think, you and I are on the same page, because Blink is also a critique of the Standard Model. One of the key arguments in my book is that human beings think in two very different ways. Sometimes we consciously and carefully gather all facts, trationally sort through them, and draw what we take to be a rational conclusion (the Standard Model). And sometimes we reach conclusions unconsciously—our mind quickly and silently sorts through the available information and draws an immediate judgment, which may be done so quickly and so far below the level of awareness that we may have no understanding of where our conclusions came from. I call this Rapid Cognition. I think the Rapid Cognition Model needs to be taken far more seriously—that it's smarter and more sophisticated and certainly more influential than we generally give it credit it for. So, like you, I'm arguing for a broadening of our understanding of what good decision-making looks like. The difference, though, is that my critique is not focused on the shortcomings of individual decision-making. It's focused on the shortcomings of deliberate decision-making. I'm simply not convinced that the "expert" sitting in his office, gathering all the facts and painstakingly sorting through each one, is necessarily in a better position than the expert who makes fluid, instinctive decisions in the moment.

There's a second implication here. The village in China might be better at reading mammograms, collectively, than the lone radiologist. But you don't think, I assume, that nonexperts groups are always better than expert individuals. Polling everyone with a B.A. in physics in 1900 on solutions to the problem of relativity doesn't get you to E=mc2 faster than asking Einstein. What you are trying to do is simply break the monopoly of the Standard Model and argue that just as problems take many different forms, so too must problem-solving. Well, here too, I'm with you. Which brings us back to van Riper. You are quite right: his genius—and the reason he was able to so resoundingly humiliate the Pentagon brass in the pre-Gulf War war game—was that he had a very clear idea about when it made sense to rely on "thin-slicing" and the powers of rapid cognition and when he needed to rely, instead, on a more deliberate approach. He wasn't a slave to the Standard Model.

I'm not splitting hairs here, because I think this is a key point. The war game that I write about, which was the most expensive and most elaborate war game ever conducted in history ($500 million dollars!), was a preview of the Iraq War. One side played the United States. Van Riper, essentially, played Saddam Hussein. And van Riper won, hands down, sinking half the U.S. Navy on the second day of the war. How did that happen? Because at the moment he attacked the U.S. Forces, they were so caught up in their computers and charts and systems analysis and complex matrixes that they had lost the ability to engage in the flexible, free-wheeling, instinctive thinking that is essential in the midst of battle. As you know, I spend a great deal of time in Blink describing what precisely characterizes this "free-wheeling, instinctive" kind of thinking and how our commitment to the Standard Model undermines it. And perhaps we can talk about that later. But for now, I'd just like to pose a question to you. Let's talk about the individual/collective split in our approaches. In Blink, I tend to lionize the expert (particularly when that expertise manifests itself in masterful rapid cognition), and I felt that sometimes in your book that you went too far in the opposite direction. How would you respond to the charge that you oversold the virtues of distributed decision-making? Supposing that we could, do we really want to replace our radiologists with the village in China?

Best,
Malcolm

James Surowiecki, a former Slate columnist, writes the "Financial Page" column for The New Yorker. Malcolm Gladwell is a writer for The New Yorker.

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