Through the Windows of Confusion

–Is there always safety in numbers?

While nobody knows what’s going on around here, everybody knows what’s going on around here.

In his eerily prophetic 1975 novel, The Shockwave Rider, John Brunner describes the Delphi pool, a futuristic incarnation of the Las Vegas betting boards.  It works this way:

Ask large numbers of people questions to which they can’t possibly know the answers.  For example:  How many victims died from influenza in the epidemic of 1918?

Even though few of the subjects know anything at all about the question, their guesses will cluster around the correct answer.  In the novel, the principle held true even for things that hadn’t happened yet, creating a reasonably accurate window into the future.

Mr. Brunner’s fantasy has a basis in reality.  In 1987, finance professor Jack Treynor asked 56 students to guess the number of jelly beans in a glass jar.  The average of the guesses was 871, a mere 2.5% off the actual number of 850 beans.  Only one student guessed closer than the class as a whole.

This means that all of us together are smarter than all of us individually.  We really are greater than the sum of our parts, and the answer to any problem often is already in the room.  That’s why good leaders solicit and encourage the opinions of others before expressing their own.

But it’s not all good news.  In a recent series of experiments, marketing professor Gita Johar of Columbia University and her team discovered something profoundly disturbing:

People are more likely to accept unverified reports as true when in the company of others than when they are by themselves.  

More compelling still is that the company we keep doesn’t have to be physical to impair our natural skepticism.  Even in a social media setting – connected only virtually with other people – we are more likely to accept information at face value, especially if it fits in with our preconceived notions.

Professor Johar explains this as a manifestation of herd mentality, an unconscious response to the belief that there is safety in numbers.  We don’t feel the need to question or fact-check because we rely on the group for authentication, even as everyone one else in the group simultaneously relies on everyone else in the group.

Welcome to the modern Delphi pool for the dissemination of misinformation.  The more people who hear a report, the more likely they are to believe it.  In no time at all, news becomes accepted as fact regardless of accuracy, even when it is easily verifiable as false.

With groupthink becoming the standard of our times, we not only become less able to recognize the truth – we become less interested in doing so.  We condemn reports as fake news not because they are factually incorrect but because they refuse to conform to our own version of reality.  As long as we keep company with others who are similarly disinterested in the difference between true and false, we have no reason to question the status quo.

In fact, probing for the truth can be positively dangerous. One word against the party line is guaranteed to bring down upon our heads the wrath of the ignorant majority among our own allies, those determined to hold fast to fabulist misconceptions created in the ideological echo-chamber of groupthink.

Of course, we want to have and to be team players.  But a team only wins when it is made up of distinct individuals playing differentiated positions.

This is why it’s so important to encourage opposing points-of-view, and for debating parties to demonstrate an ability to articulate the opinions of their disputants with accuracy.  If we don’t examine all sides of an issue, how can we possibly know who’s right and who’s wrong?  If we are all nodding in agreement with a predetermined conclusion, how can we identify flaws in our plan or recognize that there might be a better way of doing things?

Whenever emotions begin to overrule reason, we have to ask ourselves a question:  do we want to arrive at the best possible solution, or have we become too invested in our own way of thinking to want our views disrupted by the truth?

King Solomon says, A sophomoric person believes every word, but an insightful person minds his every step.

If we want to live in reality, we have to break away from the delusions of the herd and follow the path that leads back to the real world.  Easy answers and simplistic solutions gain popular approval because they create an illusion of security and order.  This is why logical fallacies abound – like either/or arguments, circular reasoning, generalization, and moral equivalence.

Solving difficult problems requires determined effort and honest evaluation.  If we want meaningful answers, we have to be willing to ask hard questions – and then we have to be able to face up to the truth no matter how uncomfortable or how unpopular that might make us.

What hard questions can you ask? How can you challenge the voice of conventional wisdom?


Author’s Note: Excerpt from “Fix Your Broken Windows: a 12-step system for promoting ethical affluence”, just released in a new, revised edition, which offers a practical approach to ethics that will transform any professional or social community into one defined by engagement, enthusiasm, and prosperity.  Available on Amazon HERE


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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  1. Thank you for sharing this post. I find my self nodding in agreement with many of your sentiments. I believe we are in an enormous state of transformation. For the first time in generations, we are not glued to one news channel and we are seeking information in ways we never have before. How could the introduction and inundation to social media not force us to evolve?

    One definition of evolution is “the gradual development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form.” I think some of us are making strides in this direction. As small as the steps may seem, the complex form of deciphering information will be upon us in the generations to come.

    I’m hopeful at least.

    • Hope is all we have, JoAnna (aside from determination, courage, vision, sincerity, and creativity). We will transform. The only question is: into what? Thanks so much for your comment!

  2. Yonason, you have quickly become the writer I seek out when I’m making decisions about the hundreds of pieces I could read in any given morning. In your pieces and in your comments, I can always count on you to make me think. This was wonderful. You are not shouting in the wind with me. I really appreciate your work.

    • Kimberly, if you were trying to make me smile, you certainly succeeded. I so appreciate your voice and your encouragement. May our conversations lead to greater insights and our insights to worthy actions.