Popcorn and Crowds

For Superbowl Sunday, there’s going to be lots of popcorn around the house.

English: Unpopped corn kernels, prepared for p...

Unpopped corn kernels, prepared for popping. – Studio photo of Popcorn. Taken in 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia

To get in the spirit, how about using it to estimate the number of kernels in a jar.

Further, since there are probably lots of people in the house, how about using it to demonstrate the power of a crowd.

Experiments starting in the 1920s demonstrate that the average answer of a group is likely to be closer to right than any one individual’s answer.

Let’s test this theory.


  • Bag of popcorn kernels
  • Quart jar


  • Have your grandchildren count the popcorn kernels in advance and record the number.
  • Fill the quart jar with popcorn kernels.
  • Ask everyone in the group to estimate how many popcorn kernels there are. It should not matter if they want to hold the jar to get the best estimate or not.
  • Have your grandchildren record everyone’s answer
  • Have your grandchildren average the results by adding everyone’s guess and dividing by the number of people who guessed.

What Should Happen?

The average should beat anyone’s guess as the closest to the actual number of popcorn kernels in the jar.


Extensive experiments, starting in the 1920s, have shown that in some cases crowds, even people who are not working together, are better than individuals at solving problems.

For example, on the tv show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” when a contestant asked for the studio audience to help them with an answer, the audience got it right 91 percent of the time, compared to 65% of the time if the contestant asked a friend who was an expert to help with the answer.

Still not convinced?

Two hundred students were asked to rank items by weight. The averaged group answer was 94 percent accurate, better than all but 5 students.

Fifty-six students were asked to estimate how many jelly beans were in a jar, by their finance professor. The group’s average answer was better than all but one of the students.

Announce in advance that you are going to give a prize to the person who gets closest to the actual number or, if the group average is closer, to split it evenly among the group.

Thanks to randomhouse.com  for inspiring this activity.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers”







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