Factors that support collective intelligence and wisdom

Many factors play a role in how collectively intelligent or wise a group, system, or situation is. Here I offer tentative lists of factors that enhance collective stupidity, collective guesstimations (the “wisdom of crowds” phenomenon), collective intelligence, and collective wisdom. I invite readers to add their own thoughts about this in the comment section below this blog post.

Some colleagues have asked that I discuss what contributes to collective intelligence and wisdom, compared to the criteria for Wisdom of Crowds-type “guesstimation” exercises – and, in contrast, what contributes to collective stupidity.

I’ll sort some of this out in the tentative lists below, intending them to be provocative, to be worked over and extended. They constitute one approach to understanding this vast and remarkable field. My suggestion to you is to think about what you might add, change, critique, or do differently, and add a note about that in the comments section below this blog post.

For this inquiry I am imagining four types of collective cognition: collective stupidity, collective guesstimation, collective intelligence, and collective wisdom. Let’s look at some factors that support each of these. Note that culture, context, system design, process design, process facilitation, servant leadership, and many other factors can make profound differences in which of these manifests in a particular collective, system, or situation.

1. Factors enhancing COLLECTIVE STUPIDITY

* Diversity lacking, squelched, or unheard – which can be promoted by group homogeneity, domination, conformity, lack of real listening, aversion to conflict and disturbance, etc. (often involving power dynamics).
* Fixed ideas – resistance to new or challenging ideas, often nurtured by ideology and/or no (or disturbing) exposure to The Other, which are further enhanced by personal or collective arrogance. Note that in the presence of fixed ideas, reason is used more for rationalization than for increasing understanding, and emotion is used more as a weapon than as a connector.
* Attack/defense dynamics (current and/or historic), leading to unproductive battles, “unsafe space”, shut-down, lack of trust, inauthenticity, etc.
* Insufficient time, space, opportunity, or support for productive conversation, learning, and reflection.
* Ignorance – not knowing important relevant information, often caused by suppression and/or distraction in the culture or social system, lack of information exchange, or by barriers to people’s understanding of available information (e.g., due to inappropriate language, presentation, complexity, oversimplification, etc.).
* Reason pitted against Emotion, Fact pitted against Story, and other cognitive imbalances and friction rather than synergy.
* Collective (the Whole) versus Individuals (or parts) rather than synergies between them.
* Ego (and collective “wego”) dynamics and hierarchies that that feed any of the above.

See also information about “groupthink“.

2. Factors enhancing COLLECTIVE GUESSTIMATION (the “wisdom of crowds” phenomenon)
(adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisdom_of_crowds)

* Diversity of opinion – each person should have private information even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
* Independence – people’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.
* Decentralization – people are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.
* Aggregation – some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.
To which some people add
* A rich, accessible informational environment within which diverse, independent agents can draw out whatever is meaningful to them.

(adapted from “Notes on Factors in Collective Intelligence“)

* Diversity – of information, people, viewpoints, etc. – present and interacting productively (synergistically), providing knowledge, perspective, stimulation, and creative re-combination into unforeseen insights and options. Note that diversity often manifests as dissent, challenge, change, outsiders, fringe elements, “the Other,” “the Shadow,” and other normally rejected or neglected aspects of reality.
* Commonality – shared humanity; shared language and culture; shared values, goals, purposes, and visions; shared leadership and power; shared inquiry and ground rules; etc. These provide common ground on and within which to explore and create together. But beware of holding too much in common – especially unexamined assumptions – and valuing commonality to the exclusion of diversity, resulting in dysfunctional conformity dynamics.
* Information – the more truthful, understandable, adequate, and relevant it is, the better. But even low-quality information can be useful if the capacities – resources, ability, time, etc. – exist to sort it out (as in helping participants discern and investigate lies and manipulation). As whole societies we have massive information – and information processing – resources available, thanks to everything from our diversity, crowdsourcing, and cultures to our journalism, science, and technology.
* Openness – people and things can be seen as what they really are. People facilitate flows of information and energy among themselves and with their world, helping both individuals and the collective be grounded in what’s real and sense into desirable outcomes together. Interpersonal and intergroup trust and safety are major factors here, enabling the collective to muster its resources to deal effectively with challenging situations. Perhaps the most important factor in enabling radical openness is people feeling fully heard, respected, and taken seriously.
* Freedom – freedom FROM oppression and the freedom OF opportunity. Freedom supports autonomy, diversity, and interactivity – and the healthy flow of information among parts of the collective whole.
* Memory – storage of information, knowledge, and experience accessible to all parts of the collective – e.g., databases and libraries, stories, media, educational materials and activities, etc.
* Discernment – recognizing differences, similarities, and relevance, and considering potential outcomes in light of values and goals. This requires overcoming blind spots, assisted by the other criteria listed here.
* Synergized polarities – between, for example, cooperation and competition, where the competition is among ideas and possibilities and the cooperation is among people. Similarly we can synergize chaos and order, challenge and safety, structure and freedom, predictability and creativity, knowledge and uncertainty, convergence and divergence, etc. They need to be balanced, productively managed for their complementary gifts, and/or helped to evolve into each other.
* Feedback dynamics – within the collective and between the collective and its environment, providing a rich learning environment over time if the other factors here are also present, allowing ongoing course corrections and evolving understandings.
* Possibility consideration – helping people consider diverse options and scenarios in light of their values and goals, openly exploring many choices and their consequences and avoiding agendas that limit their attention to only one or two proposals or which promote pro/con thinking rather than exploring an idea’s gifts and limitations and where it fits in the whole picture.
* Attunement – in ways beyond ego, people can be linked to each other and to transpersonal forms and sources of intelligence. Given the nuanced and often “spiritual” nature or framing of this approach to collective intelligence, care must be taken not to let groupthink dynamics undermine its value (note the Commonality and Diversity sections above).

4. Factors enhancing COLLECTIVE WISDOM

(adapted primarily from Chapter 4 of Empowering Public Wisdom)

Since wisdom is an expanded application of intelligence, COLLECTIVE wisdom involves all the factors noted above for COLLECTIVE intelligence, but expanded to take into account the biggest picture that can relevantly be explored. The primary medium through which such exploration takes place is conversations among diverse people and perspectives. The factors noted below shape, inform, and upgrade those conversations, helping a whole group work together to take into account everything that needs to be taken into account in order to serve the long-term well-being of their whole community, society, and world. When diverse people interact in conversations that help them ground in their natural common humanity and life and reach beyond their limited ways of thinking to see the bigger picture of life and possibility, they are well on the road to group wisdom.

* Deep diversity – While collective intelligence requires attention to differences in demographics, perspectives, and information, collective wisdom involves a deeper encounter with more dimensions of diversity, challenge, and change – not only among us but even within ourselves as individuals. We find greater attention to the unique gifts of this person, this moment, this thought, this particular situation and the lessons it offers to our insight and compassion. We also attend to cognitive diversity, the fact that different people have different ways of learning, engaging, and expressing themselves, so we help groups utilize their full human capacities, —including reason, emotion, intuition, humor, story, and movement, as well as aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities, capacities, and activities.
* Emergent (or generative) processes – approaches to conversation that are both clearly focused AND open-ended, often through the use of powerful questions that tap into the essence of a challenge (and the passion or frustration participants have about it), stimulating their co-creative engagement with it. This takes place in a context of high trust and respect (usually ensured by a facilitator and usually involving welcoming and fully hearing any disturbing perspectives and emotions that show up), often evoking purposeful self-organized participation by those involved, more than directing them along a prescribed agenda or course of exercises.
* Empathy – and the opportunity and encouragement to access “the core commons” – our shared essence. Virtually all of us have experienced pleasure and pain, joy and anger, birth and death, loving and hating, hunger and satisfaction, beauty and ugliness, and freedom and oppression. Most of us feel more at home and at peace in situations where we are appreciated for who we really are, where we can contribute in real ways, where we feel safe and respected, and where our needs and concerns are understood and addressed. Deep inside, we all know what it feels like to be a human being in this world. And we can reconnect to that knowledge and our shared humanity in quality conversation with others. Furthermore, we are all living beings on earth with the radical fellowship with all life embodied by the Native American phrase “all my relations”. And many of us can sense – or come to sense – a certain spiritual fellowship, as well, regardless of our different religious or non-religious beliefs, a sense that everything is connected as part of a larger whole, and that certain things (or everything) is sacred and/or wondrous – which elicits in us a sense of obligation to do what is right, and to honor life and each other. By giving us the challenge to pursue the common good in the face of all our differences, and then helping us to really hear each other, powerful conversational approaches lead us progressively into what can be called “the core commons” of our individual and shared lives. That prepares us to identify and articulate the common good, to believe that it matters and is possible, and to feel inspired to bring it about in the real world.
* Appreciation of complexity – which embraces the ability to hold multiple-viewpoints, both/and logic, a tolerance for ambiguity and paradox, insight into the fractal nature of reality (in which patterns can contain each other at different levels of observation) – as well as contextual sensitivities such as cultural contexts, systems thinking and what we might call “depth of field” — deep time, deep place, deep causality, deep humanity, deep ecology, deep psychology, etc. — which strive to expand our comprehension outwards towards the ideal of seeing “the whole picture.” Visual representations that bring some coherence to complex situations, possibilities, or arguments can provide a common ground for collective encounters with complexity.
* Global wisdom traditions and broadly shared ethics – which provide time-tested wisdom about what serves life – such as the near-universal Golden Rule – augmented with what humanity has learned more recently through science and global dialogue like the Earth Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
* Guidance from natural patterns. Wisdom is embedded in nature, in organisms, in natural forms and processes, and in the dynamics of evolution, providing a vast reservoir of insight and know-how tapped by today’s scientists and engineers, often standing on the shoulders of the observations and myths of ancient tribal and agricultural cultures.
* Systems thinking – to help us understand underlying causes and take into account how things are interrelated, how wholes and parts influence each other through power dynamics, interdependencies and synergies, resonance, feedback dynamics, stocks and flows, motivating purposes and needs, and life-shaping narratives, habits, and structures. Thinking in terms of wholes, the Whole, and wholeness. Being aware of context, space, and the invisible wellsprings of life energy within and among everyone and everything. Systems thinking shows up in indigenous myths and shamanism as much as in cybernetics, ecology, and complexity sciences.
* The big picture and the long term – stepping out of limiting perspectives of immediacy and narrow self-interest to understand (and creatively use) histories and energies from the past, current contexts and trends, future ramifications and needs, imagined possibilities, larger and smaller scales, the dynamics of developmental trajectories and evolutionary unfolding, and other mind-expanding perspectives – and how these are connected to each other and to our situation now.
* Agreements that are truly inclusive – because engaging everyone in taking account of everyone’s concerns and perspectives not only covers more of the whole situation, but inspires shared ownership of the solutions which, in turn, energizes and smoothes implementation, especially when everyone participates in ways that have meaning and value for them.
* Hidden assets and positive possibilities – noticing and creatively engaging energies and resources that already exist in the situation and tapping the power of people’s aspirations, which often show up at the rough edges, on the margins, or in new forms over time.
* Attunement – see the section about this under “collective intelligence”, above; groups that practice meditative collective attunement exercises may find these particularly valuable sources of collective wisdom, especially when integrated with the other factors here.
* Meaningful knowledge – information, yes, but presented fully woven into the big picture, the current situation, and the values and aspirations of those involved so that its significance is readily understandable, often using simple language, heartful stories (from multiple viewpoints), insightful metaphors, and/or thoughtfully designed visual and audiovisual presentations.
* Iteration and redundancy – doing things again, in multiple way – over time and at multiple times – all informed by feedback from the other times and efforts – so that mistakes become grist for the mill of collective learning and all bases get covered to comprehend the big picture and provide flexibility in times of challenge and change. One way or one time is never enough for wisdom.

Note: For a related exploration of factors supporting collective wisdom, see “Comparing ‘the wisdom of crowds’ to real collective wisdom


Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

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