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The Pizza Effect, And Why Crowds Are Stupid

by Charles Carreon
July 23, 2013

Ann Bransom, As Smart As Many, by Tara Carreon
[Ann Bransom] Crowd to feed? Say “Cheese!”

I was twelve when I realized I liked anchovies on my pizza.  Shortly thereafter, I realized that hardly anyone else did.  Since I would rarely buy myself a whole pizza, and there was no pizza-by-the-slice in the Phoenix, Arizona of my youth, I resigned myself to anchovy-less pizzas until I became more independent.  Then I had kids, and they didn’t like anchovies, either.

I just can’t get around the Pizza Effect: The larger the number of people ordering pizza, the more likely you will get plain cheese.  If you are among meat-eaters, you have good odds of getting pepperoni, or a half-pepperoni.  But even splitting the pizza toppings down the middle will not get you anchovies in any group of more than two — anchovy-haters are just too prevalent. 

The Pizza Effect is a particular application of the more general rule that accounts for the stupidity of crowds, the Law of Selective Aggregation:  “Whenever things get massed together, some of their properties aggregate, and other properties do not.”  For example, a pile of carbon atoms, exists as “carbon” only because the strong nuclear force binds the subatomic particles of the nucleus together and keeps the electrons within their shells.  But in a ton of coal the strong nuclear force does not aggregate.  Only the gravitic force of the coal atoms aggregates; wherefore, it weighs a ton.

A crowd of people aggregates the physical strength and the emotion of the crowd.  That is why provoking a deadly stampede is very easy, and there is a rule against shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre.  Tug-of-war is a game built around aggregating physical strength.  Add more people, and you can pull harder.  Emotion also aggregates, perhaps because emotion is transmitted through simple words and gestures that work powerfully in mass communication, perhaps for deeper reasons.  The power of aggregate emotion is easily recollected.  You brush it off if one person in a movie audience says, “Sit down!”  But if the whole row of people says it, you may feel humiliated and be unable to enjoy the movie.  The massed emotional disapproval is more painful and intimidating. 

By contrast, even though a good communicator may educate a crowd, he or she cannot aggregate the intelligence of its members to increase the speed with which we can solve a computational problem.  For example, if we projected the following question on the screen at a moviehouse: “What is the square root of 67?”  The quickest answer will come no faster than the most mathematically adept person in the crowd can provide it.  Cognitive processes like computation and other intellectual skills like rational problem solving do not aggregate in a crowd.

In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley takes it further, and effectively argues that in crowds, all negative human qualities aggregate, such that people packed in crowds suffer “herd-poisoning.”  He discusses this subject in the context of analyzing the art of demagoguery.  Huxley turns to Adolph Hitler for a case study, because Hitler knew “crowds and propaganda” “by firsthand experience.”  To make the German populace “more masslike, more homogeneously subhuman, he assembled them by the thousands and the tens of thousands, in vast halls and arenas, where individuals would lose their personal identity, even their elementary humanity, and be merged with the crowd.”  Because “a crowd is chaotic, has no purpose of its own and is capable of anything except intelligent action and realistic thinking,” people in a crowd suffer from “herd-poisoning,” an “intoxication” in which the “crowd-intoxicated individual escapes from responsibility, intelligence and morality into a kind of frantic, animal mindlessness.” 

Whether it’s that bad or not, I don’t know.  But at minimum, I know this — in a crowd, feeling what everyone else is feeling, you have the same intelligence as the whole crowd.  You are likely much more stupid than usual.  You are more likely to get a tattoo, make an inappropriate comment, inflict unwanted contact on someone of the opposite sex, or, in the really wrong crowd, discover yourself “hating” people you don’t even know, burning to punish them for wrongs that “everybody knows” they committed.  That’s called a lynching, and it’s the apex of stupidity.  Most people wouldn’t lynch anybody as a solo project, because then everyone would stop liking them for being a homicidal maniac.  But crowds do lynch people –- time and again.  Because, to a crowd, the worst ideas sound like the best ones.