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The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few Paperback – 3 Mar 2005


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Product details

  • Paperback: 295 pages
  • Publisher: Abacus; New Ed edition (3 Mar 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0349116059
  • ISBN-13: 978-0349116051
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 2.1 x 19.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 43,644 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Smart people often believe that the opinion of the crowd is always inferior to the opinion of the individual specialist. Philosophical giants such as Nietzsche thought that "Madness is the exception in individuals but the rule in groups". Henry David Thoreau lamented: "The mass never comes up to the standard of its best member but on the contrary degrades itself to a level with the lowest member." The motto of the great and the ordinary seems to be: Bet on the expert because crowds are generally stupid and often dangerous. Business columnist James Surowiecki’s new book The Wisdom of Crowds explains exactly why the conventional wisdom is wrong. The fact is that, under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them. Groups don’t even need to be dominated by exceptionally intelligent people in order to be smart. Even if most of the people within a group are not especially well-informed or rational, it can still reach a collectively wise decision. Why? Because, as it turns out, if you ask a large enough group of diverse, independent people to make a prediction or estimate a probability, and then average those estimates, the errors each of them makes in coming up with an answer will cancel themselves out. Not any old crowd will do of course. For the crowd to be wise it has to satisfy four specific conditions, but once those conditions are met, its judgment is likely to be accurate.

Surowieki concentrates on three kinds of problems. The first are cognition problems (problems that are likely to have definitive answers, such as: "How many books will Amazon sell this month?"). The second are problems of coordination (problems requiring members of a group to figure out how to coordinate their behaviour with one another) and the third are problems of cooperation (getting self-interested, distrustful people to work together-- despite their selfishness). The brilliant first half of the book illustrates this theory with practical examples. The second half of the book essentially consists of case studies with each chapter talking about the way collective intelligence either flourishes or flounders. Much of this part deals with business topics such as corporations, markets and the dynamics of a stock-market bubble.

Surowieki has an engaging, direct style defending his surprising central thesis in entertaining ways by, for example, talking about laying bets on football games and political elections; traffic jams; Google; the Challenger explosion and the search for a missing submarine. The Wisdom of Crowds is an entertaining book making a serious point and by the end of the superb first half the reader has been made to accept that, while with most things, the average is mediocrity, when it comes to decision-making the average results in excellence. --Larry Brown --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

A bright and lucid columnist for THE NEW YORKER . . . [Surowiecki] knows how to make a convincing, sometimes entertaining case (SUNDAY TIMES)

Erudite and entertaining . . . he has a rare gift for combining rigorous thought with entertaining examples (FINANCIAL TIMES)

Dazzling . . . will turn your world upside down. It's an adventure story, a manifesto, and the most brilliant book on business, society and everyday life that I've read in years (Malcolm Gladwell, author of THE TIPPING POINT)

A handsome addition to the books that combine the verve of smart magazine writing with a whiff of academia . . .a fantastically stylish counter to the expert-knows-best line . . . an offbeat argument for democracy. In the future, "crowd pleaser" might no (GQ)

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Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

46 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Mark Harrison on 25 Aug 2006
Format: Paperback
The central premise of the book is an interesting one - that taking the average of a large number of individual viewpoints is likely to give a better result than taking the view of a single (or small number) of experts.

The paragraph above is, of course, an oversimplification. The book does go into rather more detail about when this works, and when it doesn't.

The approach in the first half of the book overall seemed OK - there were points in the first chapter where I thought that the author had fallen into some basic errors, but reading on made me realise that, no, he had considered them and had responses to the questions that I thought needed answering.

However, there are, to me, two flaws in the book.

Firstly, the second half of the book is too lightweight. He applies his theory to a whole bunch of situations (shorting of stocks, elections and so on), but doesn't present any proof of his ideas. He seems to assume that we're all so convinced in the first half that he can spend the second half saying "now we know this is true, this is what it means."

... which takes me to the second flaw.

Someone rather more intelligent than I - from memory Richard Feynman - wrote a long and interesting article about scientific rigour, and how when you do one expirement that appears to suggest a theory, you don't assume the theory is right because it fitted that one set of data. Instead, you specifically design other experiments that TEST the theory.

The problem with this book is that there appears to have been a single "real world example" which suggested the theory, but that every other example is a "class room experiment by Professor X in which a series of students did Y...
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53 of 56 people found the following review helpful By John E. Davidson on 25 April 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book confounded my expectations. I generally dislike books like this but this one is interesting, provocative and stimulating. I do not wholly agree with the central thesis but even in the sections that I disagreed with there was enough interesting material to hold my attention, it was refreshing to need to question one's assumptions and to think about the points being made.
What is the Wisdom of Crowds?
The book defines it rather loosely suggesting that groups make better decisions if certain conditions are met. The conditions are: diversity (to ensure that different information is used to make the decision), independence and (a certain type of) decentralisation (to ensure that no one person is dictating the decision and that people are using their own private information) together with a way of summarising the different opinions into a collective view.
This loose definition allows the book to address a huge range of topics. It does not build a coherent case attempting to support and justify the central thesis. Instead it relies on a more anecdotal approach - examining situations where crowds can be wiser and situations where they fail to be wise - it is a biography of an idea rather than a manifesto.
To provide some structure three different types of problem are identified: cognition problems, co-ordination problems and co-operation problems. However, even within these broad areas large and rather diverse sets of problems are examined. To assist in the analysis a wide range to techniques are utilised including psychology, statistics and game theory.
The book makes great play of the ideas being counterintuitive and surprising; in some of the examples this is true, in others it seems to be seriously stretching the point.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Robin Pain on 23 Jun 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Recently on the BBC's One Show, they asked some random customers in a market place to guess the weight of a bag of something-or-other and then took the average that turned out surprisingly accurate.

I wondered how the producers knew that would happen - they must have read about it somewhere and then, sometime later I heard the title "The Wisdom of Crowds" and knew instantly that this was the source and so it proved.

The author is a columnist for the New Yorker and it shows, the Americans routinely employ multiple "fact checkers" (this is not the case in the UK), it is a pleasant smooth read with plenty of interesting examples of this remarkable thing: "The Wisdom of crowds".

If you, like me, have never come across it, then you will also be fascinated by e.g. the fact that within minutes of the Challenger blowing up, the NYSE had already correctly predicted the company responsible (involved in the solid fuel boosters) and that subsequent investigations showed no "insider trading" patterns - it was simply the combined knowledge of The Crowd.

If this review is at all interesting? Then you will find the book much more so because there is so much more to it.
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Steven Kurson on 14 Jun 2004
Format: Hardcover
James Surowiecki writes the "Financial Page" column in The New Yorker, where he's consistently able to come up with unusual takes on seemingly familiar topics, and he has a great knack for making business stories compelling and entertaining as well as understandable. But the column is only a page long, and I always wondered how Surowiecki would do if he was able to develop his ideas and arguments more fully. Luckily, "The Wisdom of Crowds" lives up to all my expectations. It's wonderfully readable, full of terrific stories, funny, and its basic argument -- that groups, under certain conditions, can make better decisions than even the smartest individuals -- is counterintuitive without being willfully contrarian.
The roots of the argument obviously stem from the way markets work -- buyers and sellers find each other and reach efficient outcomes without anyone being in charge, while the stock market (at least some of the time) does as good a job as possible of setting prices. But what I really like is the way Surowiecki extends this argument way beyond business and markets, showing how collective wisdom can be seen (and can potentially be used) in a host of other situations, including the racetrack, on the Internet, and on city streets. He also does a good job of drawing out the possible implications of this for everything from the U.S. intelligence community to the way companies are run.
This is definitely a big-idea book, but the author is cautious in laying out his evidence, and is careful to show that groups, even if they're potentially wise, are often stupid and dangerous. The chapter on small groups in particular, which focuses on NASA's mismanagement of the Columbia mission, is powerful stuff, and useful to anyone interested in how to run a meeting well (or badly, for that matter).
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