Don’t phone a friend. Or check Wikipedia. Just tell me.

Recently, I went to the Royal Academy with a chum of mine. The Summer Exhibition is a must-see show at the RA: anybody can submit a work – painting, drawing, sculpture, print, even architectural plans and models – and stand a chance of being selected along with the revered Academicians. The show attracts over 10,000 entries a year, a number quickly whittled down to a more manageable 1,000 or so that will eventually be displayed. Here’s one I spotted at last year’s show that appealed to my sense of the ridiculous: It was called (wait for it) Yellow Folding Table. This year, my friend’s friend had a print accepted. It was a cat. Or a badger. Or a marmoset. Or, at any rate, a small cute furry thing. The most striking works were the large ones. And one caught my eye immediately. It was a white canvas crudely daubed with paint, and a badly drawn black outline of a mouse. At least I think it was a mouse. Rubbish, I thought to myself. I know what I like, and I don’t like that. “Oh,” said a woman next to me to her friend. “That’s very…different.” Her friend agreed. It was very…different. But they still didn’t know what to make of it. They were teetering on the edge of decision – or indecision, which is often the same place. And then they consulted the catalogue. “Ooh!” burbled Woman Number 1. “It’s by Tracy Emin. And it costs £90,000.” She paused, letting the information sink in. “It’s very, very good, isn’t it?” Her friend nodded sagely, and they shuffled off to the next painting  – a blank canvas with four dots.

Make your mind up

What do you think about Tracy Emin? Never heard of her? OK. How about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Rap music? Aboriginal painting? Global warming? The iPhone? The Palestinian two-state solution? Twitter? Cy Twombly? In this day of instant communication, phone-a-friend and Web 2.0, we’ve started to doubt our own judgement. We’re taken in by the idea that consultation is always better. That we need to collaborate before reaching a decision. That unless our opinion is backed up by two or three other people, it’s really not worth anything. Two heads are better than one, we tell ourselves. Better safe than sorry. But what if the two or three people you consult all say different things? You weren’t sure what you thought, so you asked them. But now you’re not sure what to make of what they think, so who do you trust?

I know what you’re thinking (but do you?)

James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds was a tearaway success in 2004. In it, he argued that groups make better decisions than any individual member of the group could have made. It’s a seductive theory, because it lets us off the hook. We no longer have to make decisions alone, because we just know that getting a second opinion – or a third, fourth or fifth – will make the decision just a bit better. But crowds don’t always know best. And the greatest creative minds that ever lived, from Leonardo to Mozart, didn’t phone a friend (you know what I mean). They went with their gut feel. They listened to their inner voice. They trusted their judgement. And so should you. Find out more: