Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Wisdom of Crowds, or 4+3=852

Okay, so here are some thoughts that aren't really fully formed yet.

This year, the Shabbos Shuva drasha in my synagogue was about prayer. The Rabbi was very articulate. Among many other things he discussed was the power of communal prayer. He pointed out that one of the many benefits of davening in a shul vs davening at home was the "merit of the kehilla"....in other words, the collective prayer of a group can be greater than each of the prayers of the individuals belonging to the group. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is the power of the minyan.

Every yeshiva kid learns this in grade school...the power of the klal outweighing the power of the individuals that compose it. I have always found this to be counterintuitive. How can a group hold more sway than the individuals belonging to the group? Let's say, you had a group of runners, ranging from not-so-great to unbelievably-good. The average running stats for the group will always be less than the unbelievably-good runners, by definition, right? So then how can a collective be more powerful than all the individuals belonging to it? Does this apply to even the strongest individuals in the group? If Joe is davening in a group, and on some hypothetical spiritual rating, Joe is on the spiritual high end of the group, wouldn't the collective tefilos in the group bring Joe down? Wouldn't Joe's own prayer be much stronger without being "watered down" by others who are lower down on the spiritual scale?

I'm listening to a GREAT audiobook on my Ipod now, The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. His thesis is that groups of people are generally much smarter than each of the individuals in that group, including the smartest people in the group. He gives example after example of groups outdoing individual group members, in decision-making, in answering difficult questions, and in resolving dilemmas where there was very little data available to help reach a solution. He gives a wide range of documented examples where collective intelligence consistently outdid the intelligence of even the most extraordinarily bright individuals belonging to the group. This is another phenomenon where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I find this idea so counterintuitive. And yet, it bears out scientifically. It's one of the strongest rationales behind the idea of a democratic society, where everyone gets a vote, no matter how ill-qualified we might think them to make decisions. Society as a whole is smarter than the sum of its parts.

I'm still listening to the audiobook. This is one of those books you read that makes you wish you could talk to the author.

More to come as I digest this stuff.

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