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The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations [Hardcover]

James Surowiecki
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (300 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 25, 2004
“No one in this world, so far as I know, has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”  —H. L. Mencken
H. L. Mencken was wrong.

In this endlessly fascinating book, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea that has profound implications: large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant—better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.

This seemingly counterintuitive notion has endless and major ramifications for how businesses operate, how knowledge is advanced, how economies are (or should be) organized and how we live our daily lives. With seemingly boundless erudition and in delightfully clear prose, Surowiecki ranges across fields as diverse as popular culture, psychology, ant biology, economic behaviorism, artificial intelligence, military history and political theory to show just how this principle operates in the real world. 

Despite the sophistication of his arguments, Surowiecki presents them in a wonderfully entertaining manner. The examples he uses are all down-to-earth, surprising, and fun to ponder. Why is the line in which you’re standing always the longest? Why is it that you can buy a screw anywhere in the world and it will fit a bolt bought ten-thousand miles away? Why is network television so awful? If you had to meet someone in Paris on a specific day but had no way of contacting them, when and where would you meet? Why are there traffic jams? What’s the best way to win money on a game show? Why, when you walk into a convenience store at 2:00 A.M. to buy a quart of orange juice, is it there waiting for you? What do Hollywood mafia movies have to teach us about why corporations exist?

The Wisdom of Crowds is a brilliant but accessible biography of an idea, one with important lessons for how we live our lives, select our leaders, conduct our business, and think about our world.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

While our culture generally trusts experts and distrusts the wisdom of the masses, New Yorker business columnist Surowiecki argues that "under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them." To support this almost counterintuitive proposition, Surowiecki explores problems involving cognition (we're all trying to identify a correct answer), coordination (we need to synchronize our individual activities with others) and cooperation (we have to act together despite our self-interest). His rubric, then, covers a range of problems, including driving in traffic, competing on TV game shows, maximizing stock market performance, voting for political candidates, navigating busy sidewalks, tracking SARS and designing Internet search engines like Google. If four basic conditions are met, a crowd's "collective intelligence" will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts, Surowiecki says, even if members of the crowd don't know all the facts or choose, individually, to act irrationally. "Wise crowds" need (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions. The diversity brings in different information; independence keeps people from being swayed by a single opinion leader; people's errors balance each other out; and including all opinions guarantees that the results are "smarter" than if a single expert had been in charge. Surowiecki's style is pleasantly informal, a tactical disguise for what might otherwise be rather dense material. He offers a great introduction to applied behavioral economics and game theory.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Surowiecki first developed his ideas for Wisdom of Crowds in his “Financial Page” column of The New Yorker. Many critics found his premise to be an interesting twist on the long held notion that Americans generally question the masses and eschew groupthink. “A socialist might draw some optimistic conclusions from all of this,” wrote The New York Times. “But Surowiecki’s framework is decidedly capitalist.” Some reviewers felt that the academic language and business speak decreased the impact of the argument. Still, it’s a thought-provoking, timely book: the TV studio audience of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire guesses correctly 91 percent of the time, compared to “experts” who guess only 65 percent correctly. Keep up the good work, comrades.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 297 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1st edition (May 25, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385503865
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385503860
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (300 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #496,809 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Customer reviews

Top customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
James Surowiecki has been writing for the New Yorker for over a decade. This is his first book, and it was published in 2005.

Surowiecki looks out how using the judgement of the group helps to make better decisions, as long as the group is diverse, comes by their knowledge separately and gets to make their judgements (votes) at the same time (so they aren't unduly influenced by early voters or those with more power).

I've made it an extra credit book in my senior social work class at Rutgers, and I think that it is a wonderful book about how we think and make decisions (on par with Outliers & How We Know What Isn't So).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How more of us can be smarter than less of us. May 26, 2011
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Subtitled, "Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, societies and nations." He starts out by quote a great curmudgeon -- H. L. Mencken: "No one in this world, so far as I know, has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of great masses of the plain people," then proceeds to prove him wrong. Replete with examples of how the aggregate wisdom of a group is greater than the smartest member, his first story is of a 1906 Exhibition where British scientist Francis Galton compiled the guesses on the dressed weight of a price ox by 787 attendees, only to find that the average guess was within 1 lb.!

Surowiecki cites three basic problems that collective intelligence can address: Cognition - problems that have a definite solution (who will win the Superbowl?), Coordination - trying to get everyone on the same page (driving safely in heavy traffic) and Cooperation - getting self-interested, distrustful people to work together (paying taxes, dealing with pollution, etc.).

Scores of case studies come from finding a lost submarine (a group of independent individuals' scenarios located the sub within 220 yards of where it went down from a search area that was 20 miles wide -- sadly, too late for the crew) to how Google finds what you want to the Challenger disaster (how not to do it, unfortunately). Surowiecki shows the importance of independence, diversity and private judgment to improve the results. Actually, too many experts or too much collaboration hinders more than helps. He shows that "the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise. An intelligent group . . .
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important and Paradoxical January 4, 2009
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Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds documents and analyzes an extremely important phenomenon. When people guess at a question to which nearly no one knows the answer but most people can make a sensible guess (e.g., what proportion of the world's airports are in the USA; how many marbles can fit into a box that is a meter on each side) the average of a large group is nearly always more accurate than the guess of any member of that group. Moreover, the more people involved, the more accurate the average is.
This phenomenon was first discovered by Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's first cousin. Throughout his life, Galton was obsessed with measurement and categorization. His study of fingerprints led to their use by the police to identify criminals. His study of twins revealed that biological heredity determines intelligence and temperament. He also worked out the coefficient of correlation, which is a basis of modern statistics. In 1906, when Galton was eighty-five and still as inquisitive as ever, he visited a country fair. One of the events was a contest to try to guess what the weight of an ox, which was on display, would be after it had been killed and dressed. In order to enter the contest, a person had to pay sixpence and write his guess, along with his name and address, on a piece of paper. After the contest was over, Galton borrowed the papers with the guesses. There were 787 papers in total. To his amazement, the average guess was only one pound less that the actual weight (1,198 pounds). That was closer than any individual guess. Yet, some of the participants in the contest were butchers and cattle raisers, who would be expected to do much better than the average.
This phenomenon also applies to predictions of future events.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wisdom for decision-makers in any walk of life March 17, 2010
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Suroweiki engrossed me from the beginning. Though this book appears to be a collection of anecdotes about how crowds often outthink the experts, it struck me as a blueprint for how decision-makers should harness the power of people. Thus it is a treatise on smart business and marketing, good government, and sound organization management.

As a U.S. Army veteran, the author propelled me to thoughts on how the military could use its people's collective wisdom, something on which I have written extensively:Nine Weeks: a teacher's education in Army Basic Training

Among the most relevant claims from the book is this cogent bit of logic:

"To state the obvious, unless people know what the truth is, it's unlikely they'll make the right decisions. This means being honest about performance. It means being honest about what's not happening. It means being honest about expectations. Unfortunately, there's little evidence that this kind of sharing takes place....One of the things that gets in the way of the exchange of real information is the deep-rooted hostility on the part of bosses to opposition from subordinates. This is the real cost of a top-down approach to decision making: it confers the illusion of perfectability upon the decision makers and encourages everyone else simply to play along. What makes this especially damaging is that people in an organization already have a natural inclination to avoid conflict and potential trouble. It's remarkable, in fact, that in an autocratic organization good information ever surfaces.

It's a book that anyone who has been around people should read.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 25 days ago by Daniel
4.0 out of 5 stars Book legend
One of those books that are memorable, like "The Signal and the Noise" by Nate Silver. The choice of the title proves the ad's victory over accuracy. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Matt Mayevsky
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
good read
Published 6 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Why Opinions matter
Neat summary of how accurate wide opinions can be.
Published 7 months ago by Chares G. Muhle
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book, Easy to read, Relevant
A bit dry but easy to read. Great knowledge and context in the writing. The examples are all relevant and can be put to good use.
Published 12 months ago by Cathy Bernal
4.0 out of 5 stars A look to the ordinary people
The wisdom of crowds is an excellent book to understand the people and their reactions. It begins with a simple experience. It reminds me of the first lesson in game theory. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Bernd Kotz
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Fascinating read.
Published 13 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Really enjoyed!
This is a really enjoyable, counterintuitive romp. In its conversational tone and reliance on other people's research, it reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell at his best. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Jeremy Telman
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Great read, recommended.
Published 13 months ago by Edwin
3.0 out of 5 stars Insightful and written in a very accessible style, this ...
Insightful and written in a very accessible style, this book falls short of greatness because the author seems to repeat himself.
Published 13 months ago by BRENT N STOLLE
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