New Yorker magazine columnist and former Fool writer James Surowiecki has just published an intriguing book, titled The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few, and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations. (And hey, Fool co-founders David and Tom Gardner have a new book out, too!)
Surowiecki suggests in his book that we don't give group intelligence enough credit. As anecdotal evidence, he points to the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, where polling the audience for an answer produced the right response 91% of the time, compared with only 65% when calling an "expert" friend.
In another experiment using jelly beans in a jar, the group's guess came closer to the actual number of jelly beans than most individuals' estimates. "When finance professor Jack Treynor ran the experiment in his class with a jar that held 850 beans, the group estimate was 871," writes Surowiecki. "Only one of the 56 people in the class made a better guess."
Surowiecki's findings should be of great interest to those of us who follow developments in the business world. After all, that's where the few are paid handsomely to lead and decide and advise (think CEOs, management consultants, investment bankers, and the like) when their wisdom might be surpassed by group intelligence.
Group intelligence and investing
One variation of group intelligence, albeit on a smaller scale, is the investment club, where people pool their intellect, time, and money and invest together. I've written before about why these clubs are useful for beginning and experienced investors alike, and Surowiecki's book reinforces how effective it can be when we join forces with fellow investors.
There's a danger, though, if the members of the group don't think independently. Thinking and acting too much alike leads to results that are more like those of an individual, which can be inferior to group results. So if you're in a club, stress to your fellow members the importance of independent thinking. (Learn all about how to start a club.)
dom's group intelligence
A model of group thinking related to investing that perhaps better reflects Surowiecki's thesis can be found right here in Fooldom: our discussion board community. This Fool Community (take a free trial of it for a month) is made up of hundreds and hundreds of discussion boards and sports tens of thousands of participants.
In many ways, our discussion board community is like an investment club -- just a very big one. On our boards, you'll typically find investors suggesting promising stocks to each other, then responding and sharing research and thoughts on them. You'll find bad ideas shot down, good ideas explored, insightful commentary, valuable tips and experiences, and more. (Of course, it's also true that you'll run across some ninnies and some inane commentary, but you'll find that in almost any group, right?)
If you're wondering which health-care mutual fund might be best for you, see what the folks at our Mutual Fund board suggest. If you want to see what people have to say about stocks such as PepsiCo
The Fool Community also serves as a terrific complement to the many articles you'll find in Fooldom. Most articles are penned by a single writer. He or she, due to various constraints, probably won't be able to cover every possible angle of the story. But drop in on the Fool Community as folks respond to articles and you'll get a richer experience from a given article. For example, look at this little piece I wrote about when an investor might sell a winning stock. It set off a torrent of reactions, many negative, on the Liquid Lounge board, where many sensible investors gather.
When groups fail
Of course, groups don't always get it right. Surowiecki points to occasional stock market bubbles as examples. And since it can be hard to gauge whether the crowd has the right or wrong take on a stock or market, he recommends investing in index funds, just as Fool HQ does for many investors. (If you'd like to try to beat index funds, our investing newsletters might help. We just launched a new one, which is focused on retirement investing.) He blames group intelligence failures in the stock market on breakdowns in independent thinking and on speculative frenzies.
On a related topic, in a magazine interview, Surowiecki admitted that the political realm is one where you can't exactly point to crowds always making the best choice. "What I would say is not so much that voters necessarily choose the best candidate, but that democratic processes are the best way to make good decisions," he said. "In other words, once you know what you want to do, a democratic process is the best way to figure out how to do it."
So should you rush out to snag a copy of Surowiecki's book? It would probably serve you well. Books like this, such as Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, can offer great insights into the business world (and the world beyond), making us more perceptive observers of companies and society -- even better investors.
Selena Maranjian produces the Fool's syndicated newspaper feature - check it out . She doesn't own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. For more about Selena, view her bio and her profile . You might also be interested in the books she has written or co-written: The Motley Fool Money Guide and The Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens. The Motley Fool isFools writing for Fools.