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Two heads aren't better than one, study says

Do you believe in the wisdom of crowds? Well, a Princeton study suggests less wisdom there than you might imagine.

A one-headed monster is wiser. Sesame Street/YouTube; screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Prepare your cliches now, as I am about to take a gold-plated pickax to them.

The wisdom of crowds? Pish.

Safety in numbers? Hogwash.

Two heads are better than one? Balderdash.

And don't even get me started on crowdsourcing.

I have, you see, been emboldened by research. This is a rarity. However, this research comes from the unassailable towers of Princeton University.

The study tried to examine whether smaller groups exhibit better decision-making than larger ones. And the words expressed in the conclusions are singularly bracing: "In only a minority of environments do we observe the typical wisdom of crowds phenomenon (whereby collective accuracy increases monotonically with group size)."

At one point in time, scientists believed that the greater the group, the better the decision. I am sure this conclusion was reached by many boffins sitting in a very large room sipping rum and coke.

This study set as its parameters what its authors called complex, "realistic" circumstances.

I have never actually seen a study re-create the real world. No matter how hard the well-meaning try, they never quite seem to capture the true insanity of humanity.

Here, Iain Couzin, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, asked groups to decide between two food sources. Each group was given some information for all members, and some information for only some members.

The best decisions were made by groups comprising between 5 and 20 people.

Beyond 20, chaos and stupidity reigned. This, in common parlance, we call democracy.

Co-author Albert Kao explained that in a group, the information that's known by everyone utterly dominates the information known only to a few. So the group finds, yes, safety in numbers, rather than intelligence in actual facts.

In smaller groups, each piece of information is more likely to be given an equal amount of weight.

Of course, these researchers tried to weasel out of their conclusions just a little. They added that it wasn't so much the size of the groups that mattered, as the number of people charged with making the decision.

Oligarchy is good. Democracy, not so much.

My own experience reflects this wisdom. The bigger the meeting, the higher proportion of know-all fools and the greater flexing of political muscle, rather than intelligent debate. Indeed, the lone voice of one individual can be squashed like an unwelcome burp in church.

One especially painful example in my past featured a meeting of about 30 people.

I suddenly pulled out a packed lunch. (I'm sorry, I didn't like the fatty stuff that normally got ordered from the local place.)

It so happened that the director in charge of these things had forgotten to order lunch for the group. This led to everyone sneering at me for the rest of the meeting, ignoring my occasional breakthroughs of wisdom and accusing me of being rude for eating my lunch in front of them.

Not once did someone commend me for actually remembering to get lunch.

Oh, of course this was a meeting about selling margarine. Did you even have to ask?