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FCW : May 15, 2015
STEVE KELMAN is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Commentary | STEVE KELMAN The idea of the “wisdom of crowds” was popularized in a 2004 book with that title by James Surowiecki. The author goes beyond just say- ing that “two heads are better than one” or that groups often make better judgments than individuals, including individual experts. Instead, Surowiecki asserts that averaging the individual judgments of many people about the answer to a question will produce better results than having people discuss their initial views and then reach a common judgment. Some of the discussion has pitted the averaged judgments of large groups against those of individual experts. But belief in the wisdom of crowds also challenges another common view, which is that group discussion will typically produce better decisions than averaging the judgments of lots of individuals without discussion, as a prediction market does. Recently, social psychologist Julia Minson, a young colleague of mine at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, presented her research on the latter topic. Spe- cifically, she asked: For questions where there is a lot of uncertainty about the correct answer, do we get better responses by averaging indi- vidual judgments or by discussing those judgments in a group? The answer has important prac- tical value for decision-making in government and other large organizations. Minson’s research, which involved lab experiments, resulted in two key findings. First, averag- ing individual responses performs dramatically worse than discussion when some members of the group have estimates that turn out to be dramatically wrong. However, that approach is not as bad if there are not such egregious errors among group members. The improved accuracy of discus- sion over averaging is due mostly to participants giving greater weight to better information and not simply the distortion in averaging caused by the terribly wrong estimates. Second, the accuracy improve- ments from discussion are larger when participants do not reveal their estimates before the discus- sion. Sharing estimates in advance tends to limit the range of options considered, which has a negative effect on accuracy. Minson notes that this conclusion runs counter to most people’s intuition. Can we apply this research to development of estimates used in government and other large organi- zations? Minson’s research involved situations in which participants were often very uncertain of the facts but where correct facts indeed existed. (For example, respondents were asked to estimate the annual salaries of nine Fortune 500 CEOs.) But does it apply to uncertain esti- mates about the future? Clearly, Minson’s calculations required a comparison with some standard of a correct answer, which does not yet exist for estimates about the future. Nonetheless, the principle that there is what will turn out to be a correct estimate about an uncertain future, even if we don’t know it now, is the same for the two scenarios, and my view is that we can make the crossover. There was another lesson in Minson’s presentation. One of the great virtues of being at a university is having structured opportunities to be exposed to the ideas of young colleagues. The Kennedy School and most other research-oriented universities regularly hold seminars at which faculty members present their research, and a large propor- tion of the presentations are by young colleagues. It is tremendously stimulating and encourages the rest of us to develop new ideas and new ways of thinking, which benefits our orga- nization as a whole. Government would do well to create similar opportunities for newer employees to present their thoughts to those who have been around longer. n ‘ Wisdom of crowds’ vs. group discussion Do we get better responses by averaging individual judgments or discussing those judgments in a group? The answer has implications for decision-making in government. The improved accuracy of discussion over averaging is due mostly to participants giving greater weight to better information. May 15, 2015 FCW.COM 13 0515fcw_013.indd 13 4/20/15 2:17 PM
April 30, 2015
May 30, 2015