The supposed wisdom of the crowds

A clever crowdI enjoy watching people think they’re smarter than those around them. I don’t just mean the wise guy in the kick-off meeting or the blowhard in the First Class cabin. I enjoy watching this behavior magnified in large groups. 

I see this a lot while skiing. People of all ages, backgrounds, experience levels, and familiarity all come together in a handful of locations:

As people get off the mountain after a long day they just want to get to their car and go home. But, before they reach their car they have to take a short bus ride to the parking lot. Unfortunately they aren’t the only ones and spot two long lines of people waiting for a bus. Instead of thinking “these people all must be waiting patiently for the next bus which has a front and back door” they start to question the crowd and believe they have a better plan. They likely try two “outsmart” stunts: first, they see the next bus, spot it dropping skiers off at the drop-off zone five yards away, then run over to the bus which promptly closes it’s doors and pulls up to the two lines. Then, stunt two is realizing they should have just stood in line, but then spot a much shorter line with a smaller bus just a few feet away. They immediately jump on that bus and pat themselves on the back for beating the wisdom of the crowd. Of course, they arrive at entirely the wrong destination just a few minutes later and come back to start this over again. 

I also hear a handful of individuals “outsmart” the 50 or so people that get on the bus with all their gear (skis,  poles) in-hand despite the ski-shaped slots appearing on the sides of the bus. Instead of thinking “all of these people must not place their skis in the slots for a good reason” they spend 15 seconds trying to jam their wide powder skis into holes that were designed for narrow downhill skis many years ago. We all know it’s a round hole and that you’re carrying a square peg.

I get it: sometimes you don’t understand the situation presented to you and you want to figure it out, perhaps even improve it. I love disruptive technologies and ideas that question the status quo. But in a crowd that may consider the current experience routine, there are literally hundreds that have been there before you and learned so you don’t have to. Why not realize there is prior knowledge implicitly being shared? 

Do individuals really think they are smarter than everyone around them in these situations? This is not a rhetorical question. I simply don’t appreciate the line of thinking previously described. Is there a inhibition of common sense when you think you can defeat a situation?

What surprises me even more, though is the inverse: the mob mentality. I’m shocked by the terrible things said and done when people become anonymous in a crowd. Whether it’s encouraging potential suicide victims by chanting “jump” or yelling hateful, racist, ignorant comments at people different from themselves. 

Is there a wisdom of the crowds? At what point do you ignore it and which situations benefit learning from it?