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What is Collective Folly • Part 1

I am a human being. Nothing that is human is alien to me. — Publius Terentius Afer, a Roman playwright

When groups and larger collectives realize their potential for collective wisdom, they can experience moments of profound connection, and become capable of extraordinary action.

Often when human beings gather in groups, however, we become conduits for wisdom’s opposite— folly. We use the term folly to reflect a continuum of behaviors, from mere foolishness to acts of depravity. Put bluntly, if human beings have the capacity to access collective wisdom, why don’t we? Why are we so often responsible for collective foolishness or worse? Why do we become enmeshed, again and again, in seemingly endless cycles of petty and profound violence?

One answer to these questions is straightforward: like collective wisdom, collective folly is a potential of all groups, not simply those groups we might label as dysfunctional or unhealthy, or groups that hold overtly destructive aims. Collective folly is a lived reality, and a legacy of thousands of years of conflict and warfare. Every day human beings commit small acts of foolishness, conscious and unconscious acts of injustice, and unspeakable acts of violence and cruelty, within our families and among friends, to our peers and subordinates, and to groups of strangers small and large that we deem as “other.”

While collective folly may be an enduring characteristic of the human experience, however, we do not believe it is the destiny of any particular group. That is, we do not believe that groups are inherently foolish or dysfunctional, just as we do not believe that groups are inherently wise. Rather groups are potential portals for wisdom and folly, and can affect through their intentions and actions the likelihood of one or the other emerging.

More specifically, by understanding our propensity for collective folly, and learning to anticipate and effectively address its consequences, we believe groups and larger collectives can consciously choose to resist folly’s undertow and strengthen their potential for collective wisdom.


(1) Alan Briskin, Sheryl Erickson, John Ott, and Tom Callanan, The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009, pp. 15-34.

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