Confidence tricks: can crowdsourcing keep our feet on the ground?

January 18th, 2012 by

rickygervaisCharles Darwin once wrote that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

Despite how far society has progressed since this was written, it seems as relevant now as it ever was. Whether it’s refusing to stop and ask for directions because we’re sure we know the right way (only to find ourselves lost in the wilderness), or setting the treadmill too fast and ending up in a spluttering heap on the gym floor, most of us can relate to its sentiment.

But misplaced confidence can go beyond slapstick, with devastating consequences. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the continued resistance to tackling climate change are arguably two such examples.

Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing
But what makes us overconfident in our judgments? And what keeps those with valuable knowledge in the background? Research from social psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning may explain why we get it wrong so often.

Their experiments revealed that people generally overestimate their ability in areas they understand poorly, and underestimate their ability where their understanding is good. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and is one of many cognitive biases that affect us all.

Only the lonely
In a world where we’re told to think big and believe in ourselves, can we avoid becoming victims of our own accidental arrogance? The Dunning-Kruger Effect has one important limit: it only applies to individuals (except me, of course). This is where the crowd may offer a way to keep our feet on the ground.

Here at Microtask we’ve seen that by having multiple members of the crowd complete the same task we can achieve far better accuracy than by relying on individual judgment. But the potential of the crowd may take us much further.

Research into collective reasoning focuses on the concept of the wise crowd, a group which mixes experts and amateurs. In a wise crowd, laypeople are free to ask difficult questions and offer unorthodox solutions that experts may not consider. In turn, the experts are required to explain their observations and conclusions, and to be transparent in their reasoning.

United we stand
The power of the wise crowd depends on its diversity. By replacing the traditional team of experts, each with their own specialist area (like the one that produced the Deepwater Horizon risk assessment), with a wise crowd, it may be possible to sidestep the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Members of the crowd are encouraged to think for themselves and to be skeptical of bold claims. The crowd prioritizes clarity and results rather than blind confidence.

The crowd’s potential for new, better forms of reasoning raises exciting possibilities for the future, but how far could it go? Could crowd power show us the way to a more rational form of society? The Arab Spring has shown the power of the crowd to overthrow dictatorial regimes but so far most attempts at using crowdsourcing to design better alternatives have met with limited success (Iceland’s constitution being one of a few exceptions).

Despite such setbacks, as we learn to use crowdsourcing more effectively, I am certain that it will solve all the world’s problems caused by overconfidence. Absolutely, 100% certain.