The wisdom of crowds during COVID-19. Really?

Jul 19, 2021

James Surowiecki made a convincing case in his book ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ (2004) arguing that many of us usually make better decisions than do a few of us. However, some of us are now shaking our heads in disbelief at the collective stupidity of people during these COVID-19 days. What is going on here?

Stupid situations during a pandemic

People throughout Australia are still being fined for ignoring lockdowns, for not wearing masks, for trying to escape hotel quarantine, for lying in their travel declarations, for being out and about in the community immediately after virus testing, and for lying to contact tracers.

Apart from the Morison Government’s incompetence in not securing enough vaccines in time, and not investing in enough vaccine options, we now have this ridiculous ‘scare-ad’ campaign saying we need to get vaccinated so we don’t die gasping for breath on a ventilator.

What group of collective idiots is advising this Government? Doesn’t Morrison and his Ministers realise that catching COVID-19 isn’t a marketing or communication problem? The issue isn’t convincing us to stay at home, to wear a mask, and to get vaccinated; the issue is that there isn’t enough bloody vaccine. So, increase supply, you morons and save our money on your useless ad campaign.

Then there is the contentious situation in Australia where football games and their crowds are officially allowed to gather in large numbers at the same time as a beloved police officer has his funeral numbers cut to comply with local health restrictions. Where is the collective wisdom in that, pray tell? So, honouring footballers and their fans is more important than honouring a great police officer who was tragically killed while on duty?

Understanding collective stupidity

Crowds and groups aren’t always smarter than individuals. The social science around ‘groupthink’ has been around for years since Irving Janis coined the term in 1972. People can make dumb decisions together – case studies typically include the Cuban missile crisis (1962), the NASA ‘Challenger’ catastrophe (1987) and the decision of the USA and their allies to initiate the first Iraq War (2003-2011). In these situations, there was an illusion of control, delusion of invulnerability, strong identity among group members, suspicion of contrary opinions from outside the group, and a propensity to escalate a bad decision because no one person was held responsible for it.

Interestingly, in these COVID-19 days, there has been much written about the cultural orientation of those countries that have suffered the most during the pandemic. The sad truth is that individualistic cultures such as the US have fared badly.

A number of respected public health and social science articles have shown that collectivism predicts mask-use, and a nation’s compliance with health social norms to stay at home, to social distance, and to get vaccinated. Interestingly, it is precisely the collectivistic cultures in India and Indonesia that are now faring badly because they cannot readily distance themselves socially. They are also being adversely affected because of their cultural and religious norms encouraging people to gather to show support for each other.

There is some hope for the future

The Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede (1928-2020) presented a fascinating study of national cultures within which he distinguished individualism from collectivism (apart from his other dimensions of power distance; masculinity versus femininity; uncertainty avoidance; time orientation; and indulgence versus restraint).

The French philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) earlier had highlighted that attaining personhood was found in being connected with the pursuit of the common good. He argued that one’s very identity as a person – being an individual but unique, irreplaceable, and dignified – was linked with being meaningfully connected to a community and working to support it. We are not alone, and thinking of others actually helps us to become and to grow as a person.

Maybe Africans say it best with their rich concept of umbutu – “I am because we are”.

It is not all doom and gloom

Collectivism might just triumph over individualism, even in an individualistic nation like Australia.

Thankfully, we do see us Aussies at our collective best when there are crises – bushfires, floods, droughts, whenever there is a need for crowdfunding, and when we support local businesses, and rural and remote Australians.

The sheer irony is that enlightened self-interest might just help me see that if I don’t want to die gasping for breath from the COVID-19 virus, then I need to take steps to think deeply and selflessly about all of us.

The truth is that I am not safe until you are too. I am not protected against COVID-19 and its various strains until we all get vaccinated.

Unless of course, you are an anti-vaxxer, or a conspiracy theorist, or a member of the flat-earth society …

One hopes that Australia’s egalitarian nature and our lauded support for “a fair go” will outweigh the collective apathy of “she’ll be right, mate” or the collective stupidity of “I have my human rights”.

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