Individual intelligence vs. collective wisdom?

To both philosophers and scientists, the way that the human society is organized has always been a compelling subject. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Niccolo Machiavelli may enjoy telling stories about social contracts, monarchy and oligarchy, and modern physicists and social scientists see a world full of “links” and “hub nodes.” Regardless of the terminology, the fact is that the society is NOT a homogeneous system. Most individuals in this world are deemed as “common” people, having relatively little capability in deciding the fate of humanity. In contrast, there are always the “elites,” a clique of small size but immense power. This phenomenon seems to be deeply rooted in our animal instinct: in the group of apes, our close relatives, there will always be an alpha that can boss the others around.

Since this pattern is universally observed throughout both nature and civilizations, it should be the optimal choice for an effectively organized system. A herd of elephants without a matriarch may not be able to decide where to migrate for food source. A legion of soldiers without a commander may not make the critical decision about where and when to strike. It seems that a hierarchical structure is best for the processes of decision making and plan execution, and individuals of leadership are always needed.

Indeed, in a social system, individuals in leading positions are usually more intelligent and experienced than the commons. They also have greater access to various information and resources. These conditions allow them to make better decisions than most of the common people. The decisions that Napoleon Bonaparte had made on the battlefield would generally be wiser than those made by a common soldier. The critical steps that Steve Jobs took during his appointment as the Apple CEO proved vital for the prosperity of the technology and media empire. Moreover, the involvement of every member in the social group in every affair is unnecessary and impractical, and could lead to unfavorable outcomes. Imagine that the U.S. government had not decided to develop the atomic bomb before Germany, due to the protests against such a dangerous weapon by many citizens, the world peace would not have been achieved in 1945, and we would have been facing a much different and possibly more miserable world history.

But oftentimes, individuals can be shown to be wrong. The thoughts of individuals can be limited, biased and extreme. Tyrants and dictators that have been overthrown, such as Nero and Hitler, are iconic examples. Einstein refused to believe the stochastical property of quantum mechanics, yet the modern physical experiments tend to support the commonly accepted Copenhagen interpretation. Collective intelligence, in contrast, aggregates the knowledge of many to form an unbiased and, in many cases, accurate opinions. The voting mechanism in modern political systems is based on the collective wisdom of a large population. The prevalence and success of crowdsourcing, Wikipedia being one of the paradigms, also relies on the power of the collective mind. According to the study of Woolley et al., humans exhibit a collective intelligence with higher performance than most individuals [1].

Here comes the questions that have been asked countless times. Are decisions better made by individuals or groups? What happens if the majority of the population do not agree with the leaders’ decisions? How do we know which one is correct?

What makes the answers even more difficult to find is that individuals and groups can influence each other’s opinion. On the one hand, Eistein convinced the entire world of the correctness of the theory of relativity, and Dan Shechtman proved that quasi-crystals do exist. On the other hand, one would refer to websites such as and to decide which movie to watch and which restaurant to spend the date night at. It seems difficult to draw a clear conclusion about which one of individual intelligence and collective intelligence is more reliable. Saving Private Ryan is a very popular movie, but the “experts” in the AMPAS just loves Shakespeare in Love.

The safest way is, perhaps, to take a eclectic stance and combine the power of both. On one end of the spectrum is a an absolutely authoritarian system, and on the other end is a completely democratic one. Modern social systems, such as governments and companies, are in the middle of this spectrum: they pick a few from the crowd first, i.e. senators or board members, and let them make important decisions. In this way, we can combine the wisdom of the many and the decisive power of the individual.

[1] Woolley, A.W., Chabris, C.F., Pentland, A., Hashmi, N. & Malone, T.W. Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science 330, 686-8 (2010).

The Science Collective

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Xiaohan Zeng

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Critical Mind & Romantic Heart

The Science Collective

Like the Borg.. but less hivemind. Stories from the intersection of Science and real life. For more info: