Individual Motivation: A Key Requirement for Crowd Wisdom

Jan. 4, 2017

In 2004, James Surowiecki's book titled "The Wisdom of Crowds" was published.  It was one of the first books that got me interested in the concept of collective intelligence and summarised his own observations on the subject giving many examples of how crowds of people have successfully outperformed individuals.

Surowiecki's title pays homage to Charles Mackay's 1841 book "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" and he also cites a series of other authors from the late 19th Century who pointed out the weaknesses of groups or crowds.

History is full of examples of human collectives behaving in ways that are both extremely positive and hugely negative.  In the last hundred years alone you can look at the two world wars to find countless examples of both.  So could it be that both Suroweicki and Mackay were right?

Flocks and Swarms - Common mesmerizing miss-conceptions



I often read articles on collective intelligence that discuss swarms of bees, schools of fish and flocks of birds as collectives that harmoniously collaborate to make decisions.  But when you look at these various species they are using very different types of collective behaviour to solve a variety of problems.

Fish don't normally "School" (a very tight formation all travelling in the same direction), most of the time they "Shoal" which is far looser formation.  They only form the tightest schools when the threat from predators is high, it is a selfish response of individual fish who are cooperating to form the best chance of their own survival and flocks of birds are the same.

Bee swarms are different to schools of fish and flocks of birds, they may look similar to us but swarms not an anti-predatory response, they are a mechanism for a colony to make a choice based decision on where a new hive location should be.

Scout bees fly away from the swarm to find potential hive locations, then return to report their findings.  They communicate this information to the swarm by performing a "waggle dance" to indicate the direction and suitability of the location they have found.

Swarms have nothing to do with avoiding predators, the scout bees leave the protection of the colony to bring back information that will ensure the survival of the colony as a whole.  

Individual vs Collective Motivation

"Selfish herds" such as flocks of birds and schools of fish are motivated by the combined survival of individuals, but bees are motivated by the survival of the colony.  This is so extreme that bees have evolved a barbed sting with a venom sack that detaches from their body to inflict maximum damage to a threat to the colony but results in the death of the individual bee.  Bees are purely motivated by the survival of the colony; they have no self-interest.

wasp sting

Bee Sting

Motivation Matters

Look at every flock, school, shoal, herd or crowd and ask "Are the members individually or collectively motivated?" What you will see is that it is only insect evolved species that are naturally motivated to ensure the survival of the colony. In all other situations, species such as fish, birds and herds of mammals only cooperate when it is in their individual best interest to do so.

Human Motivation

Humans, like other mammals have evolved to be motivated by individual survival before anything else.  Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs model proposed that people are only motivated by needs higher in the pyramid once their basic needs are met.  


Maslow’s hierarchy pyramid

Daniel Pink's book "Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us" takes more of a deep dive into the higher needs in 21st Century organisations and proposes that once our basic needs are taken care of, humans are motivated by three essential elements:

  1. Autonomy - The desire to direct our own lives
  2. Mastery - The urge to get better and better at something that matters
  3. Purpose - The yearning to do what we do in the service of something greater than ourselves

Collective Human Motivation

When evaluating a human collective, we need to understand the motivations of the people involved.  Unanimous AI is an exceptional tech start-up that have been demonstrating some interesting collective intelligence use cases.  In their tests, groups of people have formed "human swarms" using their UNU tool to make collective predictions far more effectively than traditional polling or voting methods.

In 2016, their biggest successes have been in getting swarms of fans to predict sporting results as shown in their summary of the year:

With sports predictions, every member of the UNU swarm makes simultaneous predictions from a number of fixed choices in a situation that had no personal downside.  The swarms were made up of volunteer sports fans engaging in an activity that greatly added to their experience of a subject which they are passionate about. 

By voluntarily cooperating on the UNU tool as a collective, individuals participating in sports swarms have autonomy, mastery and purpose; they are operating at the top of Maslow's Hierarchy.  These sports swarms could definitely be described as a "wise crowd" but I propose that it works only because fans are individually motivated to work towards the best collective outcome.

What would happen if that same swarm of sports fans was asked to use the UNU tool to collectively decide where each participating individual should live, or what they should do for work based on what would be best for the swarm? I doubt that individuals would be motivated to work together in this case because their basic needs would be under threat.

When individual and group success become misaligned there is no longer the motivation to work together.  In the most extreme cases such as crowd crushing disasters, panicked individuals become so concerned with their individual survival that they cause the deaths of many others by rushing towards perceived safety.

Surprising political results such as Brexit and Donald Trump's victory can also be explained through a greater understanding of individual motivation.  In the UK and USA, ordinary peoples' basic needs are under threat due to immigration and technological unemployment.  It is not surprising then, that those people vote for politicians who promise to keep out immigrants and protect jobs, while politicians with a more international outlook get accused of being out of touch with common people.

An Overarching Requirement for Crowd Wisdom

Surowiecki proposed four criteria for a wise crowd:

Criteria Description
Diversity of Opinion The group is made up of individuals with different backgrounds and access to their own private information
Independence Individuals in the crowd make recommendations without knowing what others have decided
Decentralization The individuals in the group do not conform to any form of hierarchy within the crowd
Aggregation Some mechanism exists for turning individual recommendations into a collective decision

These criteria are valid but I believe that the correct motivation for individuals to work towards collective success is an overarching requirement that must also be in place for a crowd to be considered wise.  The same group of people, using the same tools and processes may be wise in one situation and not in another. 

To survive in the era of increasing technological disruption, collectives such as enterprises need to align the individual needs of their people with collective success.  Organisations who understand this will then be able to take advantage of the new breed of web tools being built by start-ups such as Unanimous AI, Enswarm or OK Play.  All of these tools amplify the intelligence of the collective – but only if the individuals are motivated to achieve collective success.

Unlocking the Power of the Swarm: Lessons for Humans

Humans are not automatically motivated to work together, anything that incentivises people to act selfishly should be replaced by systems which exclusively reward collective success.

People can only work towards collective success only if they understand what they are working towards.  Depending on the scale of the work, collective success can be articulated as a vision, objective or goal but it must be unambiguous.

There are many enterprise tools available that try to enhance collective intelligence, but for them to work, every person using them must be individually motivated to work towards a clearly defined collective success. 

Collective intelligence technology of any kind will only work if it allows a motivated, diverse crowd to evaluate content independently, on a hierarchy free interface that aggregates individual inputs – Most tools do not achieve this.

Finally, in any group of people, notice the behaviour, is anyone making a conscious effort to look for external information or are people simply following each other mindlessly?  It feels uncomfortable to be the first to openly provide a dissenting opinion in a group, but have courage, you may very well be the one “scout bee” to find a better way to do things.