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Collective Intelligence Means Smarter Working

April 2, 2011

One of the major things that networked technologies have done is to lower the cost of communication to almost zero.  This means that ideas which at one point may have been impracticle due to the distance and/or time/cost of communication are now not only possible, but quite easy.  This ease of communication results in a multiplicity of methods from individual-to-individual, peer-to-peer, group-wise, getting and collating data and the like.  With all this is mind, it is a natural next step to ask if groups of people working together are smarter or does the group-effect dilute the brain-power of those involved.  This interesting blog post looks at research addressing these very questions:

In a fascinating paper published in Science entitled “Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups” (2010), Dr. Anita Williams Woolley and her colleagues (yes, the research was collaborative!) make two important discoveries:

1. They find that there is such a thing as collective intelligence. What is collective intelligence? Well, it’s the analogue of general intelligence, or IQ, except it exists at the level of the group rather than the individual. What’s useful about IQ – our best measure of an individual’s general intellectual ability – is that it can be used to predict how an individual will perform in a number of different cognitive domains. (That’s why it’s called “general” intelligence!) Using the same basic approach for quantifying individual general intelligence, Woolley et al find that groups exhibit a similar property that is both measurable and allows for accurate predictions of how a group will perform on a range of cognitive tasks.

2. The researchers find some quite intriguing – and counterintuitive – correlations between properties at the level of the individual and the level of the group. For example, one might “pre-theoretically” think that group intelligence is a function of the average intelligence of that group’s members. And one might “pre-theoretically” think that a group with a single exceptional individual would have a higher group IQ than one with, say, three above average but non-exceptional members. However, Woolley and her colleagues find only a statistically weak correlation between the intelligence of groups and these two member-level properties. In other words, it’s not possible to accurately predict how well groups will perform on a range of cognitive tasks simply by averaging the IQs of its members, or by noting a single exceptional individual within the group.

Which is facinating. The collective intelligence of a group is not the average intelligence of the group. Simply gathering together a bunch of smart people does not mean as a group they will be. In many respects this is to be expected. If you look a group-effects such as Groupthink (where the group removes critical thinking by individuals in set areas that conflict with the percieved group aims) or bandwagon effects (where group members tend to follow a lead becase the see others as following it). So the social composition of the group is what is important in harnessing collective intelligence:

What, then, determines how smart a group of collaborating individuals is? The researchers find three individual-level features that correlate in a statistically significant way to collective intelligence.

First, the greater the social sensitivity of group members, the smarter the group. Second, the more turn-taking within the group, the better the group performs. And third, the more women in the group, the higher the group IQ. For any reader who works on projects in groups, this is good information to know! …

I many respects I’ve seen this in action in game development. Projects where we have a good social mix, trust one another and get on well enough to disagree comfortably produce far better outcomes and either keeping people in silos or deaming allegiance to some percieved group aim. Getting this balance right is tough – and in games development the last point about how women improve the group I think is key to its future sucess as a industry. This is a positive bit of reasearch that shows how we can work better, together.

(Also posted on the P2P Foundation Blog.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. The Individual permalink
    April 12, 2011 5:05 pm

    Utter trash.

  2. April 13, 2011 12:52 pm

    Care to elaborate on why you think this? Thanks.

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