What make crowds wise? Strong leaders

A part, and an important one, of the  “wise crowds” mystery seems to have been solved. All “smart mobs” need to meet two pre-requisites, which seem to be at odds with each other. While members need to be ignorant of the overall working of the crowd, some (and not too many) of them need to give the others the cue for the the next move. Iain Couzin came to this conclusion extrapolating some of his findings on fish shoal behavior to voting. The Economist summarizes his findings:

Couzin has modelled the behaviour of shoals of fish. He posited that how they swim will depend on each individual’s competing tendencies to stick close to the others (and thus move in the same direction as them) while not actually getting too close to any particular other fish. It turns out that by fiddling with these tendencies, a virtual shoal can be made to swirl spontaneously in a circle, just like some real species do.

That is a start. But real shoals do not exist to swim in circles. Their purpose is to help their members eat and avoid being eaten. At any one time, however, only some individuals know about—and can thus react to—food and threats. Dr Couzin therefore wanted to find out how such temporary leaders influence the behaviour of the rest.

He discovered that leadership is extremely efficient. The larger a shoal is, the smaller is the proportion of it that needs to know what is actually going on for it to feed and avoid predation effectively. Indeed, having too many leaders with conflicting opinions results in confusion. At least, that is true in the model. He is now testing it in reality.

If the models are anything to go by, the best outcome for the group—in this case, not being eaten—seems to depend on most members’ being blissfully unaware of the world outside the shoal and simply taking their cue from others. This phenomenon, Dr Couzin argues, applies to all manner of organisms, from individual cells in a tissue to (rather worryingly) voters in the democratic process. His team has already begun probing the question of voting patterns. But is ignorance really political bliss? Dr Couzin’s models do not yet capture what happens when the leaders themselves turn out to be sharks.

via Collective behaviour: Follow my leader | The Economist.

Ian Couzin’s papers on Google Scholar

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Sorin Adam Matei

Sorin Adam Matei - Professor of Communication at Purdue University - studies the relationship between information technology and social groups. He published papers and articles in Journal of Communication, Communication Research, Information Society, and Foreign Policy. He is the author or co-editor of several books. The most recent is Structural differentation in social media. He also co-edited Ethical Reasoning in Big Data,Transparency in social media and Roles, Trust, and Reputation in Social Media Knowledge Markets: Theory and Methods (Computational Social Sciences) , all three the product of the NSF funded KredibleNet project. Dr. Matei's teaching portfolio includes online interaction, and online community analytics and development classes. His teaching makes use of a number of software platforms he has codeveloped, such as Visible Effort . Dr. Matei is also known for his media work. He is a former BBC World Service journalist whose contributions have been published in Esquire and several leading Romanian newspapers. In Romania, he is known for his books Boierii Mintii (The Mind Boyars), Idolii forului (Idols of the forum), and Idei de schimb (Spare ideas).

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