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Vox populi, vox dei – Thot Cursus

An exhibition at the Cité des Sciences in Paris has the theme: “The crowd, an object of science”.

This exhibition is proposed by the two researchers Mehdi Moussaid (1) and Coralie Chevalier (2). It highlights the effect of group dynamics on decision-making (3).

Confrontation, the emergence of solutions

Mehdi Moussaid shares an interesting experience on the subject:

  • A one-on-one chess match is organized against hundreds of players who collectively have to decide against the single player. In the end we have a collective performance that is above the average level of the players participating in this experiment. This allows the claims of the advocates of collective intelligence to be checked.
  • This researcher also reports on a collective intelligence experiment organized by David Becker, who asked a research question in the field of biochemistry. 200,000 people started thinking and after 5 days a viable solution was found.
  • Another experiment that may seem improbable: we take a crowd that is asked a question that has an answer (e.g. how many elevators in the Empire State Building). We survey one million people and average the answers. We will then come across the correct answer (73).
  • Here is an experiment that I had the privilege of doing in a school more than 30 years ago and that anyone can easily copy: We take a piece of wood about 1 meter long, but nobody knows the exact length. We are asked to rate the length of this piece of wood as many people as possible. We will then point out that although the difference in answers is very large (the difference between the lowest answer and the highest answer), the average of the answers is oddly close to reality.
  • These experiments can be compared to the work of Kurt Lewin (4). Kurt Lewin, among other inventors of the concept of group dynamics, had shown that creating interactions and confrontations between multiple potential female customers for household products was more effective in eliciting a purchase gesture than most advertising campaigns.

Beyond gathering information, the confrontational aspect seems to have a significant impact on decision-making. This form of collective intelligence underlines the function of confrontation in order to develop a thought. We can see an inner confrontation unfolding (the inner forum in its primary meaning as inner forum). The same self-confrontation that the client brings to his therapist.

Interactions between people have the effect of transforming everyone’s representations, especially when confrontation is allowed. This reality is masterfully portrayed in Sidney Lumet’s film: Twelve Angry Men (5).

If we allow the actors in a situation to share, discuss and argue, then each individual gets closer to the right answer. Beyond the search for a better result than the opposing group, this struggle is about developing individual points of view as well as collective decisions.

The psychologist Hugo Mercier (6) postulated this effect.

We can also see the impact of collective confrontation on decision-making: we have shown in learning enterprise approaches that collective decisions are better and stakeholder engagement is maximal when confrontation is allowed by introducing it as part of the work.

Democracy, a space of established confrontation

It should be noted that the institution of confrontation is the very basis of democratic functioning: in the French legislative system, the two assemblies are each in their own right a place of confrontation between elected representatives. And the transition from one room to another is also a process of confrontation.

We can hypothesize that decisions about collectives can only be made after an established confrontation. If the experts and scientists were authorized to make decisions about common life, one would not need democracy to govern. We will remember what Clemenceau said: “War is too serious a matter to entrust to soldiers.” Beyond the obvious joke, there is an obvious reality: expertise is created to produce information, but rarely to make decisions, mainly in situations of uncertainty.

We saw this recently in the Covid crisis; The uncertainty was so great that no expert could claim to provide a specific solution with predictable results. In this sense, the processes imposed on certain politicians in dealing with the crisis may seem somewhat unfair. In such uncertainty, our only choices are digression and trial and error. If we really wanted to blame them, they could have prevented the debates, which was not the case.

In this sense, the decisions made in a democratic system are, for the most part, the most workable and appropriate decisions.

The art of speaking

The use of confrontation to change opinions can take unexpected forms (7). Many countries have taken advantage of the television series phenomenon to influence their public opinion. India has done this notably to enable the development of contraception, and more recently to mobilize women to fight against the archaic patriarchy that is holding back the country’s economic development (8).

If we look closely, beyond the appearance of a fight between good and evil, these series are designed to influence opinions, to stage confrontations. This encourages intrapsychic debate (the inner forum for the individual) and also encourages debate within families or communities.

Those who argue that democratic institutions are a waste of energy, time, and money fail to see how, by creating confrontation, these instances allow a collective to regulate itself and self-determine as little harm as possible.

But when the opportunity for confrontation is necessary, it is not enough. We can see this clearly in current societal debates, where the manipulation of certain demographics allows for the emergence of leaders like Trump or Bolsonaro. The education of citizens remains the necessary condition and a constant concern for the existence of confrontations other than battles of slogans that reflect the fear and ignorance of those who bear them. Because in this case vox populi can become vox diaboli.


1 Mehdi Moussaid, cognitive scientist at the Max Planck Institute and curator of the exhibition; Author of fouloskopie: what the crowd says about us.

2 Coralie Chevalier, curator of the exhibition. Cognitive Scientist at Normal Sup.

PDF document for the Crowds exhibition

3 We will listen with interest to Radio France’s podcast on this exhibition: The Mechanics of the Masses – France Inter

4 Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), American psychologist specializing in social psychology and behaviorism, a major player in the school of human relations. See Permission Marketing for more details on Kurt Lewin’s experience


Hugo Mercier. Jean Nicod Institute IJN Laboratory ESC. Team SOCIAL INSIGHTS: FROM BRAIN TO SOCIETY.
Personal website.

6 Series and Politics – When fiction contributes to public opinion

7 How the I, Woman, I Can Accomplish Anything series is awakening feminism in India

See other articles by this author

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