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Collective Wisdom

Collective Wisdom – Reflections

Collective intelligence and collective wisdom are distinct

Collective wisdom is distinct from collective intelligence. Both are valuable and each can benefit the other; nevertheless they are different.

What is collective intelligence?

Collective intelligence here refers to the fact that sourcing expertise, opinions and ideas from multiple people can lead to better conclusions than would otherwise be reached. The value of collective intelligence was demonstrated by the 19th century statistician Francis Galton, who discovered that when everyone in a crowd estimated the weight of an ox, the average of those estimates was almost exactly correct. Collective intelligence was also utilised by the mining company Gold Corp when, struggling to find gold deposits in an underperforming mine, they released their geological data online and offered rewards to any analyst able to locate the deposits. Collective intelligence is being utilised when we problem-solve using more than one mind.

What then is collective wisdom?

Collective wisdom is not yet well defined. Speculatively I would say some core, generalizable qualities that wisdom includes are: non-attachment to views, the desire and ability to listen, the ability to take feedback, self-discipline, self-knowledge and equanimity. It also involves compassion, and maybe even humour — an ability to not take yourself too seriously.

It’s adjacent to morality and it’s composed of ways of reasoning and ways of being. It consists of ‘waking up’ and also ‘growing up;’ someone could be non-attached and ‘awake’ in Buddhist terms, and still have a lot of mistaken ideas and shadows: they could be homophobic or racist, or have anger issues due to unresolved hurt with their father. In these cases they would still have work to do on ‘growing up’ and ‘shadow work’.

In many contexts it’s not enough to have domain knowledge and intelligence — good outcomes also depend on wisdom. Take decision-making in general: you can be very good at applying Bayes’ theorem, but if you’re very attached to your views this will cause problems. It doesn’t follow that cultivating wisdom will enable someone to make wise decisions in any domain — wise decisions also depend on domain knowledge and intelligence — but all else equal, the more someone has developed wisdom, the better their decisions will be. There are also certain domains where wisdom is particularly useful, for example it’s particularly relevant to the work of politicians and community leaders. 

To have collective wisdom, a group must be able to retain a certain kind of equanimity and self-control, in order to hold non-attachment to views. If a group of people have strong, conflicting views (probably normative views, although they might be factual and emotionally charged, such as views on the performance of Donald Trump as president), wisdom allows those people to have a constructive discussion. Groups of very intelligent people often fail to make good choices because they are not sufficiently skilled at practicing non-attachment.

Non-attachment has a distinct flavour that is different from detachment. Detachment can be useful–good financial traders are very detached, and detachment is similar to non-attachment in that it enables you to accept whatever is the case. But the ability to avoid being attached while remaining deeply committed at the same time is a rare skill. There’s often a huge amount of ego getting in the way of that.

For example, why is Voldemort unwise in Harry Potter? He’s so afraid of dying, so obsessed with life and so attached to it, that he carries out all these unwise actions that end with him dying and being trapped in immense suffering in Limbo. Of course there’s a sense in which he’s making morally terrible choices, but what happens can also be seen as stemming from this grasping attachment he has and his inability to accept what is.

Four types of problem, only one of which is amenable to intelligence

In distinguishing wisdom and intelligence, it is useful to consider the types of problems we encounter. Specifically, we can divide them into four types: problems of science, problems of self-knowledge, problems of self-control and problems of the collective. 

If we use this schema to think about climate change, the problem of science is identifying the cause of climate change and resolving uncertainties such as the impact of a temperature increase in a given geographic area.

The problem of self-knowledge is working out what we really want. Are we really understanding what we want, for example, if we say we don’t care about the impact of climate change on future generations, or if we disregard the impact that it may have on us in our own lifetimes? 

And then there’s the problem of self-control. I might know climate change is happening and know that I want to do something about it, but I also can’t help myself from booking that holiday in the Seychelles or driving my Porsche.

Finally, there are collective action problems. Here I know climate change is happening, I want to do something about it and I’m willing to act on that commitment, but I can’t have a meaningful impact alone; I need millions of other people to take action with me. 

It seems to me that the word intelligence usually refers to the ability to solve problems of science. And then wisdom would relate to our ability to deal with the latter three problems: problems of self-knowledge, self-control and collective action.

(We could expand the meaning of intelligence to encompass the ability to solve all four kinds of problems, but it’s not how we generally define intelligence and would trivialise the meaning of it).

Our understanding of problems of self-knowledge, self-control and collective action is increasingly informed by profound neuroscientific discoveries, which echo very old ontological claims in Buddhism. For example the metaphor of the rider and the elephant is now well known in cognitive science, but it’s fairly recent in Western thought. In classic Buddhist philosophy, however, it’s long been obvious that you don’t know what you want very clearly and that you don’t necessarily do what you ‘want’ to do.

Even the ‘you’ in that sentence is problematic. According to Western theory, it’s historically been obvious that there’s a ‘you’, and that ‘you’ choose to do what you really want to do and that we can therefore understand what you want from observing your behaviour. But this idea of a continual, coherent self is actually very problematic.  If we introspect carefully enough we can see that this self doesn’t actually exist. At the moment, I’m trying to acknowledge this in my own life by increasingly avoiding talking about myself as an ‘I’; instead of saying “I want to watch TV”, I say “‘it’ wants to watch TV”. Creating that distance from desires — having awareness of them without identification — often leads to more freedom. Let’s say the baby kept me up last night and I was stung by a bee this morning and I’m really grumpy (a real life example!). I can just go for a walk and let my ‘it’ go a bit crazy and get over it quickly because I haven’t identified with that feeling, or I can really identify with it and start to strengthen it by complaining – “I shouldn’t have to look after the baby every night, I can’t believe that bee stung me” etc. Part of developing wisdom is seeing the mind clearly and realising that maybe there isn’t an ‘I’ at all.

Coming finally to collective action problems: if we see individuals as distinct, self-interested entities, we’re basically screwed — collective action problems are just going to defeat us; it’s not going to be possible to solve them. (Sure, there’s a folk theorem that with long enough time horizons, we might cooperate, but if you go to a rational economist, the story is that we won’t be able to do anything about climate change and no-one should vote.) 

Yet, when we look at the huge achievements of humankind in the last millennia, so many are due to solving collective action problems. All of modern science exists because we got the state to pay people to produce public goods. There wouldn’t be any vaccines, there wouldn’t be any drugs, without basic research paid for by solving collective action problems.

One of the arguments I find compelling from the Buddhist tradition is that while it’s valuable to create cultural norms to enhance cooperation, the biggest breakthrough really comes from discovering that in a profound way there’s not a ‘me’ and that separation is an illusion. For example, we don’t generate our ideas independently but through interconnection. If a significant number of people were really present to their interconnection with other beings, whether human or animal, that would be transformative. We would be able to deal with a lot of the suffering in human society really quickly.

A Research Program on Wisdom

To return to why now is a time when it is possible to establish a research program for wisdom and get it funded; we have increasing scientific evidence — for example from fMRI scans — that we can identify the neural correlates of qualities such as self-regulation, self-awareness and compassion — and that we can cultivate them.

It’s only quite recently that we have had extraordinary evidence of the extent to which very small details of our realities are constructed by our minds and that fundamental aspects of our being are influenced by culture. Joseph Henrich shows in his paper ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ that if you repeat psychological experiments with groups other than the standard WEIRD group (Western, educated participants from industrialized, rich, democratic countries) then you get very different results. It varies how much money people will offer to others in ultimatum games depending on their cultural background, for example, but there are even more extraordinary variations. Studies conducted with Western participants have observed a tendency to under-emphasise situational explanations for the behaviour of others while over-emphasising dispositional explanations, making what is known as the ‘fundamental attribution error’.  However, comparative studies with non-Western subjects demonstrate that this tendency is not universal across cultures; for example, East Asians tend to infer that behaviour is more strongly determined by situational factors and less indicative of dispositional traits than Americans do. 

There’s even evidence of cultural differences at the basic level of perception. For example, there’s a famous illusion called the Müller-Lyer illusion, which consists of arrows that are actually the same length, but appear longer or shorter to European and American observers depending on whether the ‘fins’ on the arrows point inward or outward. That result doesn’t happen in every culture. For example, the San foragers of the Kalahari desert are unaffected — to them there isn’t an illusion. There’s some debate about what causes the effect, but one theory is that it’s affected by whether someone lives in an environment with a lot of straight lines and street corners or whether they don’t encounter that architecture very much. What’s so fascinating about these studies is that they tell us that everything from fundamental things like how we relate to our interdependence to really fine-grained things about how we literally see the world are shaped by our culture.

It’s only quite recently, in the last 30 years, that a significant body of research has emerged supporting the claim that there are different individual and collective ways of being that emerge in different contexts. Kolhberg was doing work on moral development and conceptions of self and interrelatedness in the 50s and Kegan built on his work a couple of decades later. Wilber was one of the first people to put this knowledge together systematically in the 80s, but no one really read Wilber in the 80s. Heinrich’s cultural work began in the 90s and the WEIRD paper was published in 2010. The European Values Survey has been running since the mid 80s and the European Social Survey is even more recent. But there still hasn’t been much research on how these ways of being can be nurtured. Building on all this knowledge and developing greater understanding of how we can cultivate wisdom is necessary if we are to start solving urgent collective action problems such as climate change.

In terms of the European Values Survey, for example, the data is quite crude. It would be amazing to have data from a smaller and more detailed sample over a period of time. It would be fascinating to take data from the World Values Survey and mix it with other literature. It’s been shown that there are places in which longevity is really high – so called ‘blue zones’. It would be fascinating to see if there are similar hotspots for low crime rates or high levels of trust and whether this could be traced to particular factors.

One example of a geographical area having distinct social characteristics can be found in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Putnam looks at the evidence and finds that TV was quite damaging to community. It’s difficult to measure the impact because TV became available almost everywhere at the same time and it’s hard to control for confounding factors in groups with lower access. But there was a town in Canada that was poorly situated, so it didn’t get TV for an extra decade after everyone else, and the level of community in that town provided a lot of evidence.

In conclusion, it could be extremely valuable to study the variations in the wisdom of different societies, and to develop a greater understanding of how wisdom can be cultivated. We are living in a time of great possibility and great risk. Our wisdom does not yet appear sufficient to deal with collective action problems such as the climate crisis, and generally to guide our rapidly advancing technological capabilities such that they enhance, rather than threaten, our collective well-being. Studying how we can identify and cultivate greater wisdom personally and collectively is therefore both an important task and an urgent one.