After owning the book for a couple of years now and much delayed reading, I finally got a chance to enjoy James Surowiecki‘s The Wisdom of Crowds. Not sure why it took me so long to get around to it. I definitely picked it up and started reading on multiple occasions, only to get sidetracked and ultimately starting from the beginning the next time I gave it a shot. And while it has been a few years since the original publication of the book, pretty much everything inside withstands the test of time.
On the surface, it’s a non-fiction work presenting many psychological and economic topics and theories. Come to think of it, this may have been what kept me away for a while, since I was on a fairly heavy fiction binge. Time to break the habit sooner or later, I suppose.
Surowiecki argues throughout that a group’s collective decision making is better and more accurate than it’s individuals, no matter how smart those individuals are. When groups act together, they typically have the greater good in mind and collaborate to produce more accurate, effective, meaningful information and results.
So how does any of this cross over into the world of sports? Well, the book is chock full of examples, stories, and anecdotes that strengthen the argument, provide counterpoints, and just serve to entertain.
NFL Decision Making
As wise as crowds may be, sometimes they act against logical, conventional wisdom. Tradition certainly plays a part in this, and it’s as true in the NFL as anywhere else.
Surowiecki cites, as an example, Super Bowl XXXVI. The St. Louis Rams were favored over the New England Patriots. Being critiqued were the conservative, yet conventional play calls by head coach Mike Martz. Martz kept opting to kick field goals when faced with 4th down situations. In the early going, the Rams got 3 points this way, but failed to convert a field goal in another opportunity.
David Romer, a University of California-Berkeley economist, actually devised a method of analyzing the best 4th down strategy.
He had figured out the value of a first down at every single point on the field
Based on the field position of the Rams when they kicked field goals, the expected values of going for it on 4th down were greater than their chances of kicking the field goals.
Obviously, this fails to take many factors into account such as momentum, but those variables aside, football was reduced to a science. A science that the masses have yet to embrace. Slowly but surely, a system such as this one could be adopted. The same revolution occurred in baseball with Billy Beane and Moneyball, so why not football too? Even when the crowd is wrong, you can trust that they’ll eventually get it right.
Cooperation Problems in Soccer
While crowds truly can be collectively wise, if they are not working together, little is accomplished. This is the crux of the problems with Italian soccer. In what is arguably the greatest take on the matter that I have ever heard, Surowiecki explains that it’s “myopic self-interest” that is to blame for the excessive flopping, whining, and injury-faking that soils Serie A.
It would be in their best interests to simply play a fluid, entertaining game and put on a good show for the fans. After all, they’re the ones buying the tickets and apparel and paying your salaries. It would be mutually beneficial for two teams to not be so self-interested to try and squeak out a 1-0 win, collapsing like a pile of bricks after the slightest semblance of contact so as to get closer to the final whistle.
The Bowling Bubble
We’ve all heard of stock market bubbles in the news. But what exactly are they? Surowiecki explains them as “textbook examples of collective decision making gone wrong.” And it just so happens that bowling, one of America’s pastimes, was the focal point of such a bubble some decades ago.
Bowling took off in the 1950s, as companies such as AMF shifted their focus from war efforts to leisurely ones. The automatic pinsetter was an instant success, and shortly thereafter, bowling alleys were the place to be. The word on Wall Street was that “the popularity of the sport would grow as fast in the future as it did during the fifties, [and] that soon every American would be bowling two hours a week.”
Ask yourself how often you bowl now. Or even when the last time you bowled was. Yeah – looks like that may have been a bit of an overstatement. Shortly after the initial hype, bowling stocks went back down to normal, and the bubble had burst.
Beacons of Hope
Come to think of it, all the sports references in The Wisdom of Crowds were fairly negative ones. They didn’t do much in reaffirming that collective decision making is indeed beneficial. By now your interest must be piqued and surely you want a copy of your own to read. While this was a somewhat tough review to write merely focusing on sports, the book is essential. It is an idea book that belongs on your bookshelf that you will be leafing back through for years to come.
James Surowiecki does an excellent job grabbing and holding the readers attention. From the sports stories I mentioned to others that range from weight-judging contests to how to clothing retailer Zara is gangster, there’s something for everyone. Rest assured that there are plenty of stories and examples of how this thesis works, not just the contradictions I mentioned. You’ll believe in the wisdom of crowds so much that you’ll dive right off a bridge since everyone else is doing it. Well, maybe not, but you’ll at least figure there’s gotta be some pennies down there or something.