Summary: Why do we only choose certain individuals to make decisions for groups? Doing this violates the conditions groups need to be consistently wise. If a group satisfies four conditions, its judgments are likely to be wise.
In the book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki points out the following…
Everything we think we know about intelligence suggests that the smartest, best-equipped individuals can offer us the most help and make the best decisions.
This is certainly a rational way to think, and it makes complete sense to pick smarter, better-equipped individuals to make decisions for groups as opposed to less-intelligent, ill-equipped individuals – if those are your only two options. Surely, your overall decision-making for the group will be much wiser.
Groups should make decisions for groups
But here’s a few questions for you: Why do we only see those two options? Why do we have to choose individuals to make decisions for groups of people anyway? Why not have groups make decisions for groups?
One reason is we simply don’t see any other option. Out of the two options of choosing smart, better-equipped individuals or less-intelligent, ill-equipped individuals to make decisions, the choice is obvious. But this actually isn’t our only choice. It’s just the only one the systems we operate in present to us most of the time.
Aside from simply not making any other processes a possibility, there’s also the issue of desire for any other possibility.
My observation is that because church life falls somewhere below #1 on the priority list of most Christians (at least that I know), there’s just not enough “skin in the game” so to speak to make it another thing in their life to take full responsibility for. There’s work, family, kid’s sports, hobbies, etc.; all of which typically take precedence over church life. For most Christians, their church life is a PART OF THEIR LIFE, instead of BEING THEIR LIFE.
Here’s a thought from the apostle Paul in Colossians 3:3-4 about where Christ should actually fall in the life of a Christian…
For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
The Head and the Body are one
For those who may be thinking “Christ is my life, but the church is another story,” I would say – you cannot separate the Body from the Head. The only way for Christ to be your life experientially in this life is if the church is also your life. But of course, that depends on what kind of church you’re talking about.
We’ve got a ton of things going on in our lives and we’re making important decisions every day. Let’s be honest, if there’s a way for us to transfer some responsibility from ourselves and onto others with some things, we typically take it; especially with lower priority stuff.
Everything can’t be #1 and demand our utmost attention. So we look for ways to make things easier on ourselves in those areas that are less important. Operating our church life like the world’s system (in hierarchical relationships) in this way is welcomed by most. We can offload this responsibility to one or a few people, and pay them a living wage to take on those responsibilities themselves.
It’s not how God designed the church to work, but one can certainly understand why that type of set up is welcomed in situations where church life is just a PART OF one’s life.
So we try and choose those smarter, better-equipped (so we think) individuals to do it, and then typically complain about their decisions when we don’t agree with them. 😲
The right conditions for groups to be wise
In the last post, I suggested that groups consistently make better decisions and come up with better solutions than one or a few individuals. But it’s not just being a group that causes wise decisions to be made. After all, we see groups make pretty bad decisions all the time. It’s groups with the right conditions (and hearts and motives that are pure and right of course).
Surowiecki points out 4 conditions that characterize wise crowds for us…
- Diversity of Opinion. Each person should have some private information, even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts. When a group is diverse in their perspectives, it creates more possibilities that are uniquely different from each other.
- Independence. People’s opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them. Independence does not mean isolation, but it does mean relative freedom from the influence of others.
- Decentralization. This gives people the ability to specialize and draw on local knowledge. It fosters, and in turn is fed by, specialization – of labor, interest, attention, or what have you.
- Aggregation. Some mechanism must exist for turning private judgments into a collective decision.
If a group satisfies these four conditions, its judgments are likely to be wise.
Where the world has gotten it right
Here are a couple of examples of systems where these 4 conditions are met…
The wisdom of the crowd is how lines are set in sports betting. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, a line is how many points a team receives from or gives to another team in a game. For example, if you bet on a football team to win and the line is -3 on the team you’re betting on, that team has to win by more than 3 points for you to win the bet.
How do they decide what these lines should be? They make judgments based on how the betting public has acted in the past in similar situations. I won’t dive into how bookies make their money here, but it has to do with splitting the public’s betting in half between the two teams involved in the contest.
Instead of giving their own opinion about the game, they simply set the line where they think the public would set it based on aggregating data from their past behavior.
What’s remarkable is the crowd gets it right. On average across all the games people bet on, 50% of the time one side wins the bet and 50% of the time the other side wins. If this split was even 53%/47%, the people that take the bets could lose money. But they don’t. Those hotels in Las Vegas are there for a reason.
The wisdom of the crowd is also how Google became the most popular search engine in the world. Before Google, search engines ranked their results simply by analyzing websites to see what they contained and deciding which were the most relevant to the searches people did. This was a pretty imperfect way to do it for many reasons. What set Google apart was they came up with the idea they would rank their results largely by what the internet as a whole thought of each page.
When a page linked to another page, it was extending a vote of confidence to that page. Google would aggregate those votes, weighing some votes heavier than others based on the popularity of the page that was providing the link. The more votes you got, the higher your page would rank for the queries your page was about. By doing this, Google delivered the best results consistently. By taking this approach, people don’t search for things anymore, they “Google” them. Quite the wise approach they took.
Surowiecki goes on to say…
The real key, it turns out, is not so much perfecting a particular method, but satisfying the conditions – diversity, independence and decentralization – that a group needs to be smart.
So when it comes to church decision-making, it’s not just making decisions as a group that’s important (that’s the first step), but making sure the people in the group hold to these conditions. That, of course, begs the question of HOW a church can make sure this happens. I’ll get into this in some other posts in this series.
The rest of the posts in the Consistently Wise series are here.