The Wisdom of Motivated Crowds

Wikimania 2011 Group Picture flosse 1024x451 The Wisdom of Motivated Crowds

I have been lately thinking a lot the idea of motivated crowds and how the idea could be used in teaching and learning. Firstly, what is a motivated crowd?

In an interview published in the Wikipedia Signpost Umberto Eco makes a difference between wisdom of crowds and wisdom of motivated crowds:

“I don’t quite agree with this. I am a disciple of Peirce, who argues that scientific truths are, ultimately, approved by the community. The slow work of the community, through revisions and errors, as he put it in the nineteenth century, carries out “the torch of truth”. The problem is the definition of truth.

If I were forced to replace “truth” with “crowd”, I would not agree. If you make a statistical analysis of the 6 billion inhabitants of the globe, the majority believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth, there’s nothing you can do. The crowd would be prepared to endorse the wrong answer.”

Some research suggests (see a summary e.g. in the Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowicki) that crowds are good at choosing from a selection of predefined answers but bad in defining problems or to invent solutions. Later in the interview Eco describes the idea of motivated crowds are follows:

“We must therefore find another criterion, which I think is the motivated crowds. People who work on Wikipedia … are not the indiscriminate crowd [but] are the part of the crowd who feels motivated to work with Wikipedia. Here it is: I’d replace the theory of the “wisdom of the crowd” with the theory of the “wisdom of the motivated crowds.” The general crowd says we should not pay taxes; the motivated crowd says that it’s fair to pay them. In fact, it’s not the ditch diggers or illiterates who contribute to Wikipedia, but people who already belong to a cultural crowd for the very fact they’re using a computer.”

This leads us to the second issue: what constitutes motivation?

Steven Reiss has proposed a theory with basic desires that explain human behaviour. In the article Multifaceted Nature of Intrinsic Motivation: The Theory of 16 Basic Desires Reiss (2004) describe the motives behind the desires. These are:

  • Desire to influence (including leadership; related to mastery),
  • Desire for knowledge,
  • Desire to be autonomous,
  • Desire for social standing (including desire for attention),
  • Desire for peer companionship (desire to play),
  • Desire to get even (including desire to compete, to win),
  • Desire to obey a traditional moral code,
  • Desire to improve society (including altruism, justice),
  • Desire to exercise muscles,
  • Desire for sex (including courting),
  • Desire to raise own children,
  • Desire to organize (including desire for ritual),
  • Desire to eat,
  • Desire for approval,
  • Desire to avoid anxiety, fear,
  • Desire to collect, value of frugality

A motivated crowd is a crowd that provide possibilities to full fill these desires in a balanced way.

Nevertheless, when we approach the wisdom of crowds from the motivational point of view, the term crowd starts to loose its original dictionary meaning: “a large number of people gathered together, typically in a disorganized or unruly way” ( Apple OSX Dictionary). The motivated crowds are people gathered together, but as they are driven by motives (to fulfil their desires) they start to organize themselves.

I have been sceptical about the idea of massive open online course (MOOC). I have a theory: many courses (not only the MOOCs) are not motivating because they do not pay enough attention to the participant’s desires.

In a good course students should have the opportunity to practice leadership, gain knowledge, and be autonomous. Students should be provided ways to get social attention and opportunities to play and compete with each other. But this is not enough. Students should have the opportunity to make connections to deep philosophical issues, too: to obey moral codes, improve society and have connections to past and upcoming generations. Students should feel safe and secure and opportunities to take part in rituals, organize themselves, eat and express themselves as sexual beings. Finally, according to Reiss, we also have a desire to exercise muscles. Maybe the idea of school children gymnastics and the Bauhaus’ practice to began lessons with exercises is not that bad idea (I have tried the morning exercises, stretching, yoga, etc. in my lessons).

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