Broad view: why large groups are less biased

Studies say that large communities have a certain type of thinking, regardless of culture


Michael Sykes/Life of Pix

People understand the world by categorizing things and naming them. "It's circling." "It's a tree." "These are stones." This is one way to tame our world. Meanwhile, there is a strange correspondence between different cultures - although everyone lives in different places, all have very different circumstances, but in different cultures are used basically the same categories.


"It's a big scientific mystery," says Damon Centola of the University of Pennsylvania. "If people are so different, why do anthropologists find the same categories, for example, for shapes, colors, and emotions that arise independently in many different cultures? Where do these categories come from and why are independent populations so similar?"



Centola is the lead author of a new study by Network Dynamics Group (NDG) from the Annenberg School of Communication, published in the journal Nature Communications. It examines how such categorization occurs.


Some scientists suggest that these categories are congenital and laid in our brains in advance, but the study says this is not the case. Its authors suggest that this has more to do with the dynamics of large groups or communities.


Researchers tested their theory on 1,480 participants playing "group game" online through the Amazon Mechanical Turk platform. People were grouped or divided into groups of 6, 8, 24, or 50 people. Each couple and group were instructed to classify the characters shown above, and they could see each other's answers.


Small groups came up with very different categories - the experiment received about 5,000 category suggestions, while large groups came up with categorization systems that were almost identical to each other.


"Despite the fact that we predicted it, I was nevertheless stunned to see that it really happened. This result challenges many long-standing ideas about culture and how it is formed," says Centola.


This unanimity does not boil down to the fact that groups united people with similar thinking. "If you put a person in a small group," says researcher Douglas Gilbo, "he's much more likely to come up with a category system that is very original and specific to him. But if you put this person in a large group, you can predict the system of categories that they will eventually create, no matter what unique point of view that particular person will present."



Why it's happening


The striking results of the experiment are consistent with a previous study conducted by NDG, which examined the tipping points for human behavior in networks.


This study has concluded that once an idea becomes a subject of discussion in a large group of people, it becomes incredibly popular, again and again, pop up in conversations with enough people. In structures of 50 or more people, such ideas eventually reach a critical mass and become the prevailing opinion.


This does not happen in a small community, as fewer interactions give the idea fewer opportunities to gain a foothold.


Not just categories


The conclusion of the study opens up an interesting practical possibility: will the decisions of large groups regarding categorization be less influenced by the individual biases of individual participants?


Given this issue, researchers are currently studying content moderation on Facebook and Twitter. They are trying to understand whether content classification platform decisions will be more reasonable if they are accepted by large groups rather than individuals working for those companies.


They also thought that broader associations of doctors and health professionals could better diagnose, avoiding prejudices such as racism or sexism that could overshadow the judgments of individual practitioners.



"Many of the worst social problems arise over and over again in every culture," Centola says. "That's why some people think that these problems are an integral part of human nature. Our research shows that these problems are inherent in people's social experiences, not themselves. If we change this social experience, we can change the way people classify things and solve some of the world's big problems."

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