Posts Tagged ‘workplace’

Intelligent Individuals Don’t Make Groups Smarter

30 Sep

An early effort at defining general intelligence in groups suggests that individual brainpower contributes little to collective smarts.

Instead, it’s social awareness — the ability to pick up on emotional cues in others — that seems to determine how smart a group can be.

“We lack a shared criterion in predicting which groups will perform well and which won’t,” said psychologist Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University. “There’s an underlying factor that seems to drive how individuals perform in multiple domains. I wondered if that was true of groups as well.”

In individuals, general intelligence is a measure of each person’s tendency to perform similarly on different types of cognitive tests, suggesting an underlying — general — intellectual competence. Exactly what produces those smarts, and how they correlate with biological and environmental factors, is controversial. But even if the causes are unclear, the evidence of individual general intelligence remains.

To determine whether something similar also operated in collective minds, Woolley’s team divided 600 test subjects into groups of two to five people, then had each group complete a variety of problem-solving tasks. Afterward the researchers interviewed the groups and each participant. They measured group cohesion and motivation, individual intelligence and personality, and other factors previously associated with group performance.

Their analysis, published Sept. 30 in Science, found several characteristics linked to group performance — and none involved individual intelligence. What mattered instead was the social sensitivity of individual members, the proportion of women (who tend to be more sensitive) in each group, and a balanced participation of conversation.

Gender and social sensitivity are linked, said Woolley, making emotional intelligence and conversation balance the most important factors in group performance. Not only was individual intelligence irrelevant, but group cohesion mattered little. Neither did motivation or happiness — a finding that most workers would find disconcerting.

“Some of our intuitions about how satisfaction and cohesion correlate with performance are a little misguided,” Woolley said. “But it’s not as if happiness and cohesion are bad.

In future research, Woolley plans to study how group intelligence is affected by size, and how the benefits of increased collaboration can reach a point of diminishing returns. She also wants to know how group intelligence changes when collaboration occurs online.

“The way we’re moving now, where everyone is interconnected, it calls into question the whole notion of what intelligence is, whether it’s so relevant what an individual can do by themselves” said Woolley. “It’s good to move the conversation in that direction.”

Image: Michael Cardus/Flickr.

See Also:

Citation: “Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups.” By Anita Williams Woolley, Christopher F. Chabris, Alexander Pentland, Nada Hashmi, Thomas W. Malone. Science, Vol. 329 No. 6000, October 1, 2010.

Brandon Keim’s Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on an ecological tipping point project.