1 October 2010

Group not a sum of parts especially with women

Cosmos Online
The intelligence of a group does not really depend on the intelligence of individual members. Instead, the groups that perform the best have a higher social sensitivity, equality and number of female group members, according to a recent study in Science.
group intelligence

Credit: iStockPhoto

SYDNEY: The intelligence of a group does not depend on the intelligence of individual members as much as you may expect. Instead, the groups that perform the best have a higher social sensitivity, equality and number of female group members, according to a recent study in Science.

“Conceptually, our findings call into question our whole notion of individual intelligence and its importance to modern society, where collaboration is so critical,” said Anita Woolley from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the lead author of the study.

Understanding group dynamics is becoming increasingly important, she said, as collaboration in professional tasks often require group approaches – whether it is face-to-face or virtual contact. So far, several research groups have tried to define and characterise the collective intelligence of a group we may also be able to characterise the ability of a specific group to perform.

How to measure collective intelligence

The use of statistical modelling has previously been applied to the measure of individual intelligence by subjecting a person to a wide range of tasks and then using their results to predict future performance. However, this is the first time this approach has been applied to the assessment of group intelligence, according to the research.

“Our findings suggest that it matters less what individuals can do on their own with a piece of paper and a pencil, and that it matters more what they can do with other people,” said Woolley.

In the study, small groups of two to five people were observed in their collective ability to make moral decisions, complete creative brainstorming tasks, and carry-out tasks that required physical coordination such as retyping text together.

Individual traits and group traits

Individual intelligence was measured at the start of the experiment, and each group was subjected to a game of checkers with a computer opponent – providing a reference point for comparison.

After the groups performed a series of unrelated tasks, the researchers assessed which factors could explain the variation in group performances. They found that the collective intelligence did not correlate strongly with the average nor the maximum intelligence of individual group members.

They did find a strong correlation with social sensitivity (the ability to empathise with others), equality (in terms of conversation turn taking) and higher numbers of females in the group.

What does this mean for group composition?

“While this is a very interesting result,” said psychologist Lazar Stankov from The University of Sydney, “I fear the material is too immature for publication”. Stankov, whose research areas of interest include that of ‘intelligence’, suggests that the authors may have been too exclusive in their search for a single factor that defines collective intelligence. Rather, there could be numerous factors that contribute to the collective performance of a group.

Further to this, there is concern with the type of tests being used to measure intelligence in this study. “Brainstorming is not an intelligence test, nor is typing, which is a mechanical ability,” said Stankov.

While the tasks chosen to assess group performance in this study did not adhere to traditional IQ testing, they were indicative of typical situations a group may face in the workplace. “We now hope to explore the role of technology in enhancing collective intelligence,” said Woolley.


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