The Philosophy and Psychology of Thinking in Groups and Crowds

Module details

  • Offered to 3rd & 4th Years
  • Thursdays 16.00-18.00
  • Planned delivery: On campus (South Kensington)
  • Two-term module, worth 5 ECTS
  • Available to eligible students as part of I-Explore
  • Extra Credit, or Degree Credit where your department allows
Degree credit module options by departmentHow to enrol

No one thinks alone; it is always something we do in groups. But how do we think together and collectivise our mental resources to the best effect? To answer this question, we will need to draw on a huge range of disciplines: history, politics, economics, psychology, neuroscience, science-fiction and even entomology (insects also do a lot of collective thinking).

There are lots of groups in which you can see a common mind or collective intelligence at work: packs, swarms, herds, tribes, corporations, colleges and classrooms, markets and governments. Ever increasingly, the job of connecting our individual minds up together has been taken on by technology and the networks of information that wire us up together. Very soon we may see super-intelligent technologies taking-over the job of organising human society altogether.

This module will take you through the debates around collective intelligence and follow the evolution of the group-mind from past to present and on into the future. We will be looking at how the act of thinking together can go wrong in paranoid conspiracy theories, information bubbles and market panics and how, perhaps, it might be done better.

Listen to Dr Matt Wraith talking about the Collective Intelligence module

Collective Intelligence

The Philosophy and Psychology of Thinking in Groups and Crowds

Published on May 17, 2022

Listen to Dr Matt Wraith talking about the Collective Intelligence module

Please note: The information on this module description is indicative. The module may undergo minor modifications before the start of next academic year. 

Information blocks

On successful completion of this module, you will be able to:
  • Analyse structures of collective thinking in a wide variety of different social and historical settings: organisations, corporations, colleges and classrooms, markets, governments, nations, and insect swarms
  • Identify and evaluate optimum social arrangements for collective reasoning
  • Assess the impact of different forms of communication technology on public knowledge and public discourse
  • Apply this understanding to create forecasts of possible and likely effects of forthcoming developments in technology


  • How public opinion is formed
  • How hierarchies of knowledge contrast with distributed networks of knowledge
  • The madness of crowds vs. the wisdom of crowds
  • Some early history of the World Brain idea in H.G. Wells and Stafford Beer
  • The role of information networks, platforms and algorithms in shaping public knowledge and opinion
  • How human communication systems compare to other biological information systems
  • The emergence of AI in human organisation and public discourse and its implications for the future of government and society
All classes will feature collective discussion time prominently. We aim for a 2:1 discussion to lecture time ratio if not more. Classes will feature frequent smaller group discussions to allow you to develop ideas with each other and develop learning relationships. You will be frequently on your feet recreating experiments, mingling and exchanging information with each other.
The module takes as one of its primary fields of study the different media and channels through which we gain information. We will thus be looking at a whole range of different digital sources – though always with a sceptical eye regarding their potential hazards. All lectures will be recorded for you to go back to in your own time. An abundance of module materials, further literature, examples for discussion, and lecture slides will be made available through Blackboard. We also make use of the ‘discussion’ function on the module VLE where you can carry on the discussion after class has finished. Also on the VLE there is a ‘wiki’ function where you can create multi-authored documents which can act as an interesting demonstration of collective intelligence at work which is part of the module subject matter.
Summative written assessments are delivered via the Virtual Learning Environment and you are given extensive feedback through in-text commentary and three or more paragraphs of overall feedback. These cover both your understanding of the module materials and your writing technique. Feedback on oral presentations will be given both by the module leader and by your peers.

Coursework: Essay - 1500- 2000 words (50%)
Practical: Individual 10-15 minute presentation (50%)

  • Requirements: You are expected to attend all classes and undertake approximately 85 hours of independent study in total during the module. Independent study includes reading and preparation for classes, researching and writing coursework assignments and preparing for other assessments.
  • This module is designed as an undergraduate Level 6 module. For an explanation of levels, view the Imperial Horizons Level Descriptors page.‌‌