Group intelligence

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Background concepts

Group intelligence is a term used in a subset of the social psychology literature to refer to a process by which large numbers of people converge upon the same knowledge through group interaction. The term is not commonplace in the mainstream academic study of human intelligence.

Social psychologists study group intelligence and related topics such as decentralized decision making and group wisdom, using demographic information to study the ramifications for long-term social change. Marketing and behavioral finance experts use similar research to forecast consumer behavior (e.g. buying patterns) for corporate strategic purposes.


The term group intelligence describes how, under the best circumstances, large numbers of people simultaneously converge upon the same knowledge. The term is often interchanged with the terms collective intelligence, cointelligence, crowd wisdom, and herd mentality.

James Surowiecki, in The Wisdom of Crowds, claims that, counterintuitively, group intelligence requires independence of thought (as opposed to blindly following an opinion leader or the bandwagon effect) as well as superior judgment. Unlike herd behavior, group intelligence—like crowd wisdom—is a uniquely human phenomenon. And, unlike the terms herd behavior and herd mentality, group intelligence connotes more rational decision processes: based less upon emotional reactions and more upon knowledge and understanding.


The idea of a "group mind" or "mob behavior" was first put forward by nineteenth-century French social psychologists Gabriel Tarde and Gustav Le Bon. Herd behavior in human societies has also been studied by Sigmund Freud and Wilfred Trotter, whose book Herd Instincts in Peace and War is a classic in the field of social psychology. Sociologist Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class illustrates how individuals imitate other group members of higher social status in their consumer behavior. Francis Galton, (1822-1911)a British scientist who conducted anthropometric and psychometric studies on human behavior, is famous for his study of guesses of the weight of an ox at an agricultural fair. Galton asked individuals visiting the fair to guess the weight of the ox, and the arithmetic mean (average) of their many guesses was within one pound of its actual weight.

James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds explains how group intelligence works—and doesn't work—to benefit mankind. A popular example of group intelligence was the TV game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire". Contestants were asked questions from history and popular culture, and when stumped, can query the audience. When audience members are polled for answers during the show, they are correct 91 percent of the time.

Academic fields such as marketing and behavioral finance draw upon group intelligence gathering data to identify and predict the rational and irrational behavior of investors, as in the work of Daniel Kahneman, Robert Shiller, and Amos Tversky. Driven by emotional reactions such as greed and fear, investors can be seen to join in frenetic purchasing and sales of stocks, creating bubbles and crashes.

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References and further reading[edit]

  • Freud, Sigmund's Massenpsychologie und Ich-Analyse (1921; English translation Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, 1922). Reprinted 1959 Liveright, New York.
  • Gladwell, Malcolm, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. (2002) Little, Brown & Co., Boston.
  • Kahneman, Daniel, & Tversky, Amos, Choices, Values, and Frames (2000) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.
  • Le Bon, Gustave, Les Lois psychologiques de l'évolution des peuples. (1894) National Library of France, Paris.
  • Le Bon, Gustave, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. (1895) Project Gutenberg.
  • Trotter, Wilfred, Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War. (1915) Macmillan, New York.
  • Schiller, Robert, Irrational Exuberance (2000) Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
  • Suroweicki, James, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. (2004) Little, Brown, Boston.
  • Sunstein, Cass, Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge. (2006) Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom.

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