When crowds go wrong

October 23, 2017

by LIOR ZOREF @lior

I wrote this post during a flight to Washington DC, to which I was invited to give a keynote at an event..

While I was waiting for my flight, I made a video call with my family. It was 6am in New York and 1pm in Israel. My wife and 3 children had just finished brunch at a nice Tel-Aviv restaurant (if you ever visit Israel, don’t miss breakfast at Benedict). I thought about the days when it was so hard to make even a simple international phone call. Yet today, within 2 seconds, I initiated a video conference and saw everyone as if they were sitting by my side.

Two seats next to me sat someone I thought was a New Yorker. At the end of my video conversation, he turned to me in Hebrew and said hi.

He introduced himself as an Israeli who had lived in the US for many years. He was married, with three children, all of whom were born in the US, and worked as a consultant for a large tech company.

Like every two Israelis, within five minutes we discovered that we were about the same age, have a common friend, a common hobby (sailing) and that we had children of similar ages.

I asked him, “Can you explain to me the rationale for US gun laws? ”

He sighed and I could see that he was a bit uncomfortable with this issue. “I know that it is hard to explain this, but I’ll give it a try. The strong feelings of Americans about the right to bear arms is somewhat similar to the strong feelings of the LGBT community in Israel when it comes to equal rights. They feel it’s a basic right that allows citizens to feel protected. A basic right that must not be denied.”

“But the role of the state is to protect citizens, that’s why we have a police force,” I replied.

“Many Americans are convinced that freedom is also expressed in the right to possess weapons, and there are many civilians who believe that they must bear arms in order to deter future governments from acting against their own citizens.”

“And that makes sense to you?” I asked.

“No way!” he replied. “Not long ago, I was at a neighbor’s garage sale. They sold old toys, a chair, two rifles and an M16 assault gun! And for them that was a natural thing to do.”

I arrived to DC and had a few free hours in which I visited the Senate building as I pondered this story.

From my point of view, as a crowdsourcing researcher. Is this an example of the wisdom of crowds? The entire world was shocked by the recent shootings in Las Vegas, where a civilian bought 47 weapons and killed nearly 60 civilians.

The statistics are shocking. According to the US Department of Health, an average of 93 Americans are killed every day by guns, including 7 children. 7 children every single day.

Data shows that half of Americans are satisfied with the current gun laws or think they should be made even less strict. This is the wisdom of crowds according to US citizens.

The wisdom of crowds has several conditions. Do they exist in this case? The first two conditions seem to exist: a large and diverse crowd. But do Americans think about this issue independently and rationally? I’m not sure. It’s a very emotional issue. This might be an example of emotional or cultural bias, where irrational thinking leads to making the wrong decision.

I continued to see Martin Luther King’s monument.

I learned that the artist wanted to symbolize that Martin Luther King’s work was not over yet and thus his body is still in stone. The famous words of his speech, “I have a dream”, resonated in my mind.

My keynote was during the next day. The event organizers managed to get a new Chevy Bolt into the conference room during my talk and I asked the audience to share their weight estimates of the vehicle.(Photo by Edwin Remsberg)

This time the wisdom of the crowd worked and the talk resonated well with the audience.

On my way back to Israel, I stopped for a short visit in Amsterdam. I went through Vera’s cookie shop where she makes the best chocolate cookies in the world (for those who have not read the story I wrote about those cookies, here’s a link to read it in Hebrew). As always, there was a long line. This time, a sign was added saying that the waiting time was 45 minutes.

I waited patiently and finally bought four cookies. I asked Vera, “How come you still haven’t changed your mind and decided to open more branches?” She smiled and replied, “Because that’s the only way I’m happy.”

I took a bite of the cookie. A little moment of happiness.


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