Thursday, November 11, 2010

Are Wisdom and Compassion Incompatible?

Whenever I feel a tendency to grant that the “wisdom of the crowd” is not a total absurdity, I try to take some time to see what the crowd is actually doing.  One of my favorite venues for such observation is on the Web site for the San Francisco Chronicle, not in the news stories themselves but in the comments and the level of popularity assigned to those comments by the usual crowdsourcing techniques.  Perhaps this is unfair.  People react emotionally to bad news.  Sending comments to a Chronicle Web page, particularly when you know that the comments will be subject to voting by others, is an easy way to get some satisfaction out of venting.  It is also an excellent case study in why emotions throw a monkey wrench into all that wisdom-of-crowds evangelism.

One of the most reliable causes of high-pitched emotion is a traffic jam, and we had a doozy this morning.  Here is how Staff Writer Henry K. Lee filed the basic facts on a Chronicle Web page created about half an hour ago:

A "mentally unstable" man stopped his sport utility vehicle on the upper deck of the Bay Bridge this morning and threatened to jump off the span or blow it up, forcing officials to close the westbound direction for two hours, the California Highway Patrol said.

The man, who had his 16-year-old daughter in the SUV, was taken into custody without incident at 8 a.m., about an hour after he got out of the car and began calling police and at least one radio station. The girl was unharmed, CHP Sgt. Trent Cross said.

The upper deck reopened to traffic at about 9 a.m., after authorities drove the SUV off the bridge to San Francisco. No explosives were found in the car or on the bridge, Cross said.

When I read this report, the second most popular comment (101 thumbs-up, 11 thumbs-down, making a score of 90) had the handle “scottjmansfield” and consisted of a single sentence:

What a selfish jerk.

This quickly prompted the following reply from “peatree:”

Shoot him and shove him in the bay. Sharks need some food.

The relationship between cognition and emotion is a peculiar one.  I tend to agree with the convincing arguments from researchers such as Gerald Edelman and Antonio Damasio that the “emotive” parts of our brain are actively involved in cognitive development;  but those findings do not advocate turning all rationality over to spontaneous emotional reactions.  This may be the crux of the difficulty with the whole wisdom-of-crowds hypothesis.

Every defense of the hypothesis seems to be based on the premise that all behavior is rational:  If you need to make a rational decision, then your own rationality can only benefit from the rationality of others.  Unfortunately, just about every prevailing model of rationality does not take emotion into account, which means that none of those models carry much weight in “real-world” decision making.  The great literary model of the tension between rationality and emotion when crowds are involved is Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s lynch-mob story, The Ox-Bow Incident, a model I have cited in my past examination of Chronicle  One might not usually associate a lynch mob with a traffic jam;  but, if the circumstances have the right characteristics (as this one seems to have exhibited), the association is grotesquely valid.

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