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The Wisdom of Crowds [Paperback]

James Surowiecki
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 16 2005
In this fascinating book, New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea: Large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant–better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.

With boundless erudition and in delightfully clear prose, Surowiecki ranges across fields as diverse as popular culture, psychology, ant biology, behavioral economics, artificial intelligence, military history, and politics to show how this simple idea offers important lessons for how we live our lives, select our leaders, run our companies, and think about our world.

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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

While our culture generally trusts experts and distrusts the wisdom of the masses, New Yorker business columnist Surowiecki argues that "under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them." To support this almost counterintuitive proposition, Surowiecki explores problems involving cognition (we're all trying to identify a correct answer), coordination (we need to synchronize our individual activities with others) and cooperation (we have to act together despite our self-interest). His rubric, then, covers a range of problems, including driving in traffic, competing on TV game shows, maximizing stock market performance, voting for political candidates, navigating busy sidewalks, tracking SARS and designing Internet search engines like Google. If four basic conditions are met, a crowd's "collective intelligence" will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts, Surowiecki says, even if members of the crowd don't know all the facts or choose, individually, to act irrationally. "Wise crowds" need (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions. The diversity brings in different information; independence keeps people from being swayed by a single opinion leader; people's errors balance each other out; and including all opinions guarantees that the results are "smarter" than if a single expert had been in charge. Surowiecki's style is pleasantly informal, a tactical disguise for what might otherwise be rather dense material. He offers a great introduction to applied behavioral economics and game theory.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

“As entertaining and thought-provoking as The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.... The Wisdom of Crowds ranges far and wide.” –The Boston Globe“A fun, intriguing read–and a concept with enormous potential for CEOs and politicos alike.” –Newsweek“This book is not just revolutionary but essential reading for everyone.”–Christian Science Monitor“Provocative....Musters ample proof that the payoff from heeding collective intelligence is greater than many of us imagine.” –BusinessWeek“There’s no danger of dumbing down for the masses who read this singular book.” –Entertainment Weekly“Clearly and persuasively written.” –Newsday“Convincingly argues that under the right circumstances, it’s the crowd that’s wiser than even society’s smartest individuals. New Yorker business columnist Surowiecki enlivens his argument with dozens of illuminating anecdotes and case studies from business, social psychology, sports and everyday life.” –Entertainment Weekly“The author has a knack for translating the most algebraic of research papers into bright expository prose.” –The New York Times Book Review"Dazzling . . . one of those books that will turn your world upside down. It's an adventure story, a manifesto, and the most brilliant book on business, society, and everyday life that I've read in years." –Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point “Surowiecki’s clear writing and well-chosen examples render complicated mathematical and sociological theories easy to grasp. . . . [His] accounts of how the wisdom of crowds has formed the world we live in will thrill trivia mavens–and may make a better investor (or football coach) out of anyone who takes its conclusions to heart.” –Time Out New York"This book should be in every thinking businessperson's library. Without exception." –Po Bronson, author of What Should I Do With My Life?
“Drawing from biology, behavioral economics, and computer science, Surowiecki offers answers to such timeless–and often rhetorical–questions as “Why does the line you’re standing in always seem to move the slowest?” and “Why is there so much garbage on TV?” The result is a highly original set of conclusions about how our world works.” –Seed Magazine“As readers of Surowiecki’s writings in The New Yorker will know, he has a rare gift for combining rigorous thought with entertaining example. [The Wisdom of Crowds] is packed with amusing ideas that leave the reader feeling better-educated.” –Financial Times (London)“The book is deeply researched and well-written, and the result is a fascinating read.” –Deseret Morning News"Jim Surowiecki has done the near impossible. He's taken what in other hands would be a dense and difficult subject and given us a book that is engaging, surprising, and utterly persuasive. The Wisdom of Crowds will change the way you think about markets, economics, and a large swatch of everyday life." –Joe Nocera, editorial director of Fortune magazine and author of A Piece of the Action “Makes a compelling case.” –The Gazette (Montreal)“Deftly compressing a small library’s worth of research into a single slim and readable volume, the Financial Page columnist at The New Yorker makes his bid to capture the zeitgeist as his colleague Malcolm Gladwell did with The Tipping Point. . . . The author has produced something surprising and new: a sociological tract as gripping as a good novel.” –Best Life“Surowiecki is a patient and vivid writer with a knack for telling examples.” –Denver Post "Most crowds of readers would agree that Jim Surowiecki is one of the most interesting journalists working today. Now he has written a book that will exceed even their expectations. Anyone open to re-thinking their most basic assumptions–people who enjoyed The Tipping Point, say–will love this book." –Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball
“Surowiecki’s is a big-idea book.” –Salon.com"It has become increasingly recognized that the average opinions of groups is frequently more accurate than most individuals in the group. The author has written a most interesting survey of the many studies in this area and discussed the limits as well as the achievements of self-organization." –Kenneth Arrow, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and Professor of Economics (Emeritus), Stanford University“Clever and surprising.... The originality and sheer number of demonstrations of the impressive power of collective thinking provided here are fascinating, and oddly comforting.” –Bookforum“An illuminating book.” –Detroit Free Press

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Relevant and surprising July 10 2004
Format:Hardcover
Although the subtitle to THE WISDOM OF CROWDS is an awkward mouthful, it is at least accurate: the book does an exceptional job of illuminating a remarkably wide range of material from politics, everyday life, and the business world. Surowiecki's not offering a grand unified theory of everything, but in the course of investigating how and when groups and crowds are and are not intelligent, he takes you on an exhilarating ride. You can't go more than a couple of pages without coming across some interesting factual tidbit or clever anecdote. Just a short list of stuff Surowiecki writes about includes: crowds on city sidewalks, Navy men trying to find a lost submarine, the Nielsen ratings, Google, scientists trying to find the SARS virus, the stock market, game-show audiences, fashion stores, and the C.I.A. Thankfully, though, he understands that just stringing together stories isn't enough. Instead, he fits his examples into a strong argument that holds the book together. You can get a lot out of this book just by dipping into individual chapters, but reading it from beginning to end is a powerful experience.
One of the things about the book that hasn't been much remarked on is the light it sheds on the flaws in the way the U.S. intelligence community -- and, I would argue, the Bush administration -- approaches the problem of forecasting the future and making good decisions. The book's main subject is the wisdom of crowds, but Surowiecki spends a lot of time on how groups go wrong, and his discussion of how groups make bad decisions seems to me completely relevant to our current problems.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but a bit disappointing June 28 2004
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
I wanted to read this book because I have a personal interest in Prediction Markets and have read a couple of Surowiecki's columns in the New Yorker and Wired magazines on this subject. My expectation was that he would expand on his columns and get into details on how Prediction Markets can be used in a corporate or public decision making process. Unfortunately, I'm going to have to agree with the more negative reviews already posted. While the first 50 pages do a good job of explaining these markets and setting the table for a detailed examination, that discussion never happens. Instead, the majority of the book is a collection of studies and anecdotes about the behavior of crowds - most of which I have some recollection of from Psychology classes taken long ago. The second half of the book focuses on what he calls Case Studies, but what I would call simply stories. There's a story about corruption of Italian soccer judges, Richard Grasso's compensation, a review of crowd theory in the movies, the retail fashion industry, the Columbia disaster, etc. Fairly interesting, but hardly instructive. My amateurish explanation for all this is that while Surowiecki may be a talented columnist, but when challenged when writing a full length book, he has neither the practical experience nor educational background to give any great insight on how to leverage the wisdom of crowds to tackle the issues of the day.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
Upon hearing about a book on "the wisdom of crowds", I expected it to answer three qeustions: Are crowds wise?, When are they wise?, and Why are they wise? Sadly, this book answers none of them.
Are crowds wise? Surowiecki fills his pages with unconvincing anecdotes. He has only a handful of real studies and he buries them randomly throughout the book. Worse, Surowiecki sometimes describes a study that would be easy to conduct, but instead of doing it he simply tells us what he expects the results would be. And despite the book's constant championing of dissent, Surowiecki offers no evidence that cuts against his argument. Instead, every failure of a crowd simply helps prove his thesis, since he claims it failed because it violated one of his vaugely-stated rules.
When are crowds wise? Surowiecki offers only untested speculation. He claims they need "diversity, independence, and a particular kind of decentralization" (oddly, by decentralization Surowiecki appears to mean aggregation). Surowiecki never defines any of these particularly clearly but instead gives lots of examples. This makes them useless as predictors of a crowd's intelligence which is probably why Surowiecki makes no attempt to test them.
Why are crowds wise? Surowiecki doesn't even bother to answer this one, even though it's the first half of the books subtitle. He considers the question briefly on page 10, only to spout some empty sayings (crowds are "information minus error") and wonder in amazement ("who knew ... we can collectively make so much sense") before finally concluding "You could say it's as if we've been programmed to be collectively smart."
Perhaps noticing these weaknesses, Surowiecki gets all this out of the way in the first 40% of the book.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
The interesting thesis of the book, if I understand correctly, is that sometimes the viewpoint of the crowd is better than the opinion of a sole, or a few experts.
For example, the scientist Galton observed, at a fair, that a group of people who guessed the weight of an ox were, when averaged, only 1 pound off from the actual weight of the ox.
Another example are prediction markets like the Foresight Exchange on the Internet. There was another prediction market, that, as time went on in 2000, had Bush defeating Gore; this prediction market turned out to be right, and some political scientists turned out to be incorrect.
In order for the crowd to give a pretty good opinion, there are four critieria that must be satified, according to the author: 1. diversity of opinion; 2. independence of members from one another; 3. decentraliation; 4. a good method for aggregating opinions.
But here I disagree--even with these four conditions fulfilled, the crowd does not always give the correct view. For example, I am a member of Internet discussion groups. I would say that all the four conditions are pretty well satisfied, but I have hardly seen a consensus develop in the first place--and even if it did, that would not make it true.
Going back to the above examples, what made the people at the fair to nearly guess correctly the weight of the ox, or for a prediction market to correctly predict the winner of the 2000 US Presidential election, is, in a word, incentives. The participants in those cases have a stake in being correct--they can win an ox, or win some sort of status in the Internet prediction market.
I think that it is a fair generalization to make that participants, when given incentives to be correct, do tend to be correct. This is interesting.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshingly optimistic
It seems naive to mention it, but one of the things I liked best about Surowiecki's take on the intelligence of groups is how optimistic it is. Read more
Published on July 3 2004 by "stevec91"
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging
Even after having read it, I'm still not sure what category I'd put THE WISDOM OF CROWDS in. It offers important insights into business, and helped me understand the way markets... Read more
Published on July 3 2004
2.0 out of 5 stars This is not the new new Tipping Point
Like so many, I was excited for this book, since I buy the basic concept (at least from the Google angle) and I enjoy Surowiecki's NEW YORKER column. Read more
Published on July 1 2004 by Jennifer Godwin
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading
This is one of the most entertaining and intellectually engaging books I've come across in a long while. Read more
Published on June 28 2004 by "chrisbooth34"
5.0 out of 5 stars PEARLS
Unlike in his New Yorker column, James Surowiecki takes far too long to support his thesis in practical terms--but when he does the details, insights and perspective are nothing... Read more
Published on June 23 2004 by Byron Reimus
5.0 out of 5 stars A Counter-Intuitive Notion
In 1906, Francis Galton, known for his work on statistics and heredity, came across a weight-judging contest at the West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition. Read more
Published on June 14 2004 by Craig L. Howe
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
I'm a big fan of James Surowiecki's "Financial Page" column in The New Yorker. He's consistently able to come up with unusual takes on seemingly familiar topics, and he... Read more
Published on June 13 2004 by Steven Kurson
5.0 out of 5 stars The masses can be much smarter than we give it credit.
This is a very interesting book that covers many complicated subjects related to group decisions vs. individual decisions. Read more
Published on June 13 2004 by Gaetan Lion
5.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing and useful
I decided to read this book after reading an essay that Surowiecki wrote in Wired, arguing that companies and organizations in general put too much trust in the people at the very... Read more
Published on June 13 2004
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