UK EU flag

The Wisdom of Crowds appeared in 2005, written by the American financial journalist, James Surowiecki. Its central theme is that mass decisions made by individuals operating independently of each other produce better and more accurate verdicts. Surowiecki drew in turn from the work of the British scientist Francis Galton. He observed that pooling and averaging the estimates of the weight of an ox made by 800 people at a country show produced a far more accurate result than calculating the median of their results [the central point between all estimates, high and low]. In fact the pooled and averaged estimate corresponded to the exact weight of the animal.

Surowiecki produces other examples in support of his argument and it strikes me that two recent episodes in British national life also demonstrate this wisdom of crowds. The first was the General Election of 2015, the second the recent referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. In the first case the electorate returned a conservative government with an absolute, but slender, majority: the collective message was we trust you to form a government – but only just. In the second, the electorate decided we were better off out - but only just, the vote split 52% to 48%. Again, an accurate reflection of the national mood, acknowledging the complexity of the argument and the pros and cons on either side.

But why did the Brexiteers carry the day? The post-mortem has produced multiple explanations. The beauty of a secret ballot is that each makes his or her decision in isolation from everyone else, and chooses whether or not to disclose that decision or the reasons for arriving at it. My voting for out was conditioned largely by two factors: my reading of history, and my views on the euro. History told me that the British tradition of many centuries of parliamentary democracy could not be reconciled with the political structures of our mainland neighbours [though some were closer to us than others]. We were doomed to be the odd man out, perennially viewed as a troublemaker. Second, the euro. Although we’d secured an opt-out, there would be constant pressure on the UK to join this failing project. If we stayed out, then we would increasingly be excluded from the inner circle of decision-making. Neither option held much appeal.

In the run-up to the poll I was curious to know what was influencing others to vote for out. Among the many people I spoke to [but didn’t seek to influence] was my eldest daughter. A twenty-four year old graduate, and a well-paid professional living in London, she should have been the classic remainer. She said that she’d listened to all the arguments, but found it hard to put her reasons for voting leave into words. It seems like we are continually being dragged in a direction we don’t want to go, she told me. At the end of the day, staying in just felt wrong.

“Feeling wrong”, or some equivalent phrase, was something I heard from several other people. What we are really talking about, then, is the importance of gut instinct in making decisions, and specifically significant decisions. Gut instinct is traditionally decried as the basis for making decisions. Our western tradition of education emphasises the primacy of reason. The head should rule the heart and logic should always govern emotion. I’m not convinced. Reflecting on my own experience, whenever I have allowed a rational appraisal of “the facts” to over-rule a strong gut feeling to do the opposite, I have lived to regret it. I’m far from alone in this. Conversations with numerous entrepreneurs on programmes I’ve directed at Cranfield suggest that others have experienced the same thing. More to the point, recent developments in neurobiology provide a growing basis of support for this view. The cumulative evidence suggests that we often “know” something instinctively or intuitively before that something is known to our rational consciousness: pre-conscious knowledge, if you like, which we can’t articulate because we have yet to process it. Yet it is no less valid as knowledge.

But how do we know which gut instincts to trust? I might have a hunch about the winner of the 3.30 at Newmarket, but if I backed all such hunches I’d probably be broke and the bookies even richer. The answer, I think, is to look for evidence to support that feeling in the gut. That evidence can take many forms. It might consist of seeking out hard data, which provide confirmation that we’re on the right track. It might consist of talking to a number of independently-minded people whose opinions we respect, and testing our thinking and conclusions – in a small way, trying to tap into the wisdom of crowds. But most importantly, do not simply dismiss that gut instinct as irrelevant or unscientific. You could just be right.

If you’d like to know more about neuroscience and gut instinct, see The hour between dog and wolf [2012] by John Coates, a Wall Street trader turned Cambridge neuroscientist. It assumes no expert knowledge on the part of the reader and is a cracking read!

By David Molian, visiting fellow at Cranfield University