Friday, January 14, 2005

James Surowiecki and Malcolm Gladwell

Slate has a good back-and-forth between James Surowiecki and Malcolm Gladwell, two of my more favorite author/thinkers. They write about Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, which details how aggregating many independent decisions produces outcomes better than expert decisions, and Gladwell's Blink, which outlines how split-second gut feelings are almost as good as-or better than- deliberation.

As the discussion outlines, the specifics of the situation are important to which effect, if not both, take precedence. I think the specifics of the specifics matter even more, the *types* of environmental factors that matter aren't the ones we think of first (is the person an expert, is the situation clear), they are more structural (what incentives undergird the committee, both personal and institutional etc.) And if you add behavioral economics to the mix, you have systematic bias (probably biological in origin) which would probably remain even after you have aggregated decision making and expert gut-checks.

As I'd discussed on this blog before, I think that our cognition is an artefact of our neural biology, and therefore its strengths and (systematic) weaknesses must ultimately be explained by biological processes instead. Trying to model cognitive bias through behavioral economics + aggregate decision making + gut checks is like throwing three laundry lists into a kitchen sink, too long and too unsystematic to have useful explanatory power. I think that biology is going to ultimately sort this stuff out, and I look forward to progress in that arena.


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