What The Titanic Teaches Us About The Pandemic
Outliers are critical to finding the right solution. This fact may help us emerge from the COVID crisis.
(This article previously appeared in Chief Executive Magazine)
“Everything is settled for the greater good of the greatest number by the common sense of most after the consultation of all.” — Winston Churchill
According to James Surowiecki’s “Wisdom of Crowds,” good things happen when we consider the broadest range of options because they improve our ability to recognize innovative solutions. I express this as “extremes clarify the mean.” Crowd wisdom has its opposite number, groupthink, or mob psychology when our brains mirror each other. It happened on the bridge of the Titanic on April 14, 1912.
The behavioral psychologists call this problem “heuristics,” referring to our tendency to reach for quick answers rather than thoughtful solutions. Heated disagreements turn into rumbles in the jungle and why one side eventually resorts to accusations of Hitlerism.
It happens in everyday life. If you suffer from an addiction to french fries, you are obeying a familiarity heuristic telling your brain to eat what you remember enjoying — and don’t forget to slather the ketchup. Heuristics don’t cause us much concern when it comes to chips — they can lead to grave danger in the case of ships.
Crowd wisdom can be a life-changing tool when faced with “black swans,” as Nassim Taleb calls moments of deep uncertainty. At times like the 2020 pandemic, our brains require a range of options to choose the optimal solution — the kind that might not occur to us on our own.
Sometimes, crowds veer off in the other direction — mob hysteria. Think of riotous fans at a British football game. They are suffocating, not extracting information. It is why they make such mad, bad decisions, and things go helter-skelter. This happens when crowd wisdom is missing.
Mob hysteria doesn’t have to be loud. It can be misleadingly subdued, as it was on April 14, 1912, as the RMS Titanic left port on its maiden voyage. Four days after embarking from Southampton, England, the ship struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Three hours later, it descended to its final resting place in the Atlantic Ocean, taking 1,518 of its 2,228 passengers and crew, including Captain Edward Smith. The tragedy was not just a loss of life, but as we now know, that it was preventable.
The crew became aware of icebergs when the Titanic telegraph operator received the following message: ‘Westbound steamers report icebergs, growlers (huge chunks of ice) and field ice on April 12’, and it goes on to point out the latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. It was plain as day that trouble lay ahead. Yet, the officers on the bridge held the ship’s course. How could they?
The mates on lookout agued the ship should swing south to avoid the iceberg, but the captain and others didn’t pay much attention. They were, after all, only shipmates. The most dangerous form of groupthink is when a leader sticks to conventional thinking, and it can be more disastrous than insanity. On that fateful night, the officers aboard the Titanic turned into the equivalent of football hooligans — wearing epaulets, and not knowing what they didn’t know.
Captain Edward Smith was an experienced transoceanic pilot, but heuristics played a decisive role in guiding his actions. Smith had a schedule to meet, and a long-held rule holds that lateness is a sign of incompetence on the high seas; ships sail past ice sheets all the time without incident. In this case, he relied on pattern recognition, a heuristic that makes us believe that when we see something that reminds us of something, it must be the same.
These considerations created a group mentality aboard the Titanic bridge that no one dared dispute. The mates were looking at icebergs; the officers saw only the stars guiding them homewards. The outcome was catastrophic and far worse than if the least seaworthy individual were at the wheel.
Smith’s problem was not reluctance; it was a lack of understanding of crowd wisdom. If he had read the work of British social scientist, Sir Francis Galton, he would have suggested a poll of the 2200 passengers, asking them to vote for on-time arrival with some risk, or choose a later arrival and play it safe. The answer would have saved 1,500 lives, including Smith’s.
In 1906, a few years before the Titanic’s maiden voyage, Galton was visiting the annual Fair of England Fat Stock and Poultry, and was busy watching a group “gathered to appraise the quality of each other’s cattle, sheep, chickens, horses, and pigs.” For an 86 year old renowned researcher in the field of statistics and heredity, nothing could be more fun. He discovered the principles that still guide our understanding of crowd wisdom.
As Galton strolled the fairgrounds, a group of men and women were placing bets on the weight of an ox standing by a scale. After they recorded their best guess, they submitted it on a piece of scrap paper like an election card at a voting booth. Galton recognized statistical gold when he saw it and recovered the slips of paper from the bin.
Eight hundred people took part in the bet. They were a mixed group — farmers who worked with livestock — others who were two generations into the industrial revolution and knew nothing about oxen. As he studied the estimates, he saw something profound, mindset diversity. “The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues.”
Galton compiled the 787 guesses (13 were illegible), and graphed them “from highest to lowest.” The average produced “the collective wisdom of the Plymouth crowd.” Galton presumed the percentage of the guesses would be far off. The crowd pegged the ox at 1,197 pounds. He went over to the judge’s stand and inquired. The ox tipped the scale at 1,198 pounds.
As James Surowiecki noted in “Wisdom of Crowds,” the group was one pound off.
Galton’s work resonates as we look to crowd wisdom to guide us back to a normalized world after the 2020 pandemic. The lessons he left were “under the right circumstances, and groups are smarter than the smartest people in them. Even if most are not especially well-informed or rational, it can still reach a collectively wise decision.” Winston Churchill described the same phenomenon, referring to war cabinet deliberations: “Everything is settled for the greater good of the greatest number by the common sense of most after the consultation of all.”
“The consultation of all” is the critical thing.
Galton proved if you want better odds, the group must be independent-minded thinkers. He also realized the value of outliers, because when crazy competes with conservative, it clarifies the optimal path. When we dismiss ideas out of hand, we are back on deck with Captain Smith.