Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Revisiting Swarm Intelligence


I was at a very pleasant business dinner the other evening with three smart gentlemen discussing everything from the presidential election to cold chain regulatory trends.  I mention these topics only because what happened next, and what happens every single time, occurs regardless of the table's combined IQ.

The waitress appeared and asked (what is apparently) the hardest question known to mankind: “Would anyone like dessert?”  In our case this “sudden group decision” turned four intelligent adults into four blithering idiots, twitching and staring at their laps.  Fortunately, one of our number had his PhD and recovered long enough to order a single slice of chocolate chunk pecan pie with four forks--a brilliant solution to an otherwise intractable problem.

I wrote about this phenomenon here in the context of swarm intelligence, the idea that dumb little ants running around in circles can come together in a group that is able to build complex structures, defend its turf, and write monographs about black holes like Stephen Hawking.

Ants.  Bees.  Birds.  Bacteria.  Swarm theory is an accepted theory.  My theory is essentially the opposite: All too often, people who are otherwise smart, ethical, good human beings come together in a group and become absolute jackasses.  Rush hour.  The Kennedy administration in The Best and the Brightest.  Enron.  Ordering dessert.

In fact, I call it “Dessert Intelligence.”

You might think that the falling IQs around ordering chocolate chunk pecan pie are all about politeness and deference.  In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell informed us that certain cockpit crews are so deferential that they crash their planes.  I call that stupid.

Recently, we’ve had some really menacing, very sad instances of Dessert Intelligence.  A local high school basketball team imploded over a reckless group hazing incident.  Oklahoma State fans rioted after their team’s victory.  Students at Dean College were expelled after participating in a group assault.  Penn State football--need I say more?

I don’t know where this phenomenon falls in academia--economics, sociology or psychology--but having brilliant people study Dessert Intelligence (preferably not in groups) seems to be especially important.  After all, the greatest single technological innovation in the last generation allows us to create and network groups faster and more efficiently than at any time in human history.

Three lessons here: First, guard your IQ in crowds.  Second, the Web really might be the technological embodiment of the great dessert question, making us all stupid. (Think: Flashmob-robbery, singing babies going viral, and Kim Kardashian being the number 1 search term in 2011.)  

Third, it's not such a bad idea to bring a PhD to dinner.