In a series of three posts, Jonathan Weisberg explains the Zollman effect. Here are some highlights.
What is the Zollman effect?
“More information generally means a better chance at discovering the truth, at least from an individual perspective. But not as a community, Zollman finds, at least not always. Sharing all our information with one another can make us less likely to reach the correct answer to a question we’re all investigating.”
What does it look like?
“Bigger, less connected networks are better insulated against misleading results. Some doctors are bound to get data that don’t reflect the true character of the new treatment once in a while. And when that happens, their misleading results risk polluting the community with misinformation, discouraging others from experimenting with the new treatment. But the more people in the network, the more likely the misleading results will be swamped by accurate, representative results from others. And the fewer people see the misleading results, the fewer people will be misled.”
“By limiting the sharing of results, we can increase the chance that alternatives will be explored long enough for their superiority to emerge.”
When does it happen?
“RBO [Rosenstock, Bruner, and O’Connor] conclude that the Zollman effect only afflicts epistemically ‘hard’ problems, where it’s difficult to discern the superior alternative from the data.”
Can we observe and measure it?
“In this simulation [shown], we reach a point where there are no more green [persuadable] agents, only unpersuadable skeptics in red and highly confident believers in blue. And the blues have become so confident, they’re unlikely to ever move close enough to any of the reds to get their ear. So we’ve reached a stable state of polarization.”
“So the more agents are inclined to mistrust one another, the more likely they are to end up polarized … [and] … the more agents there are, the more likely it is that strong skeptics will be present at the start of inquiry”.
What have I learned from this?
When facing complex challenges it is important that there is trust among people sharing their findings and observations. If trust is not established, it may be better to share knowledge in more diverse and larger networks [e.g. radical innovation only comes from networks with large structural holes, which are more diverse] rather than in a community where good ideas may be ignored or pushed down due to peer pressure.
“The property of having ties to people who are not in the same social circles with each other is called betweenness or ‘structural holes’. A person rich in structural holes has many ties, and the people they are tied to are not tied to each other.
It’s important to realize that in a small group, it is difficult for many people to have personal networks rich in structural holes. For this to happen the network has to be fairly diffuse.” —Steve Borgatti
The Zollman effect shows one of the dark sides of communities. Communities can strengthen bias, reinforce prejudice, and make it acceptable to dislike outsiders. Understanding all facets of communities as we continue to connect through technology-mediated online spaces becomes an important literacy.