Sensitivity Makes the Group Go 'Round: The Science Behind Collective Intelligence

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Group work. Everybody does it, from elementary school kids to corporate executives. And everyone groans when they find out the resident know-it-all has been assigned to their group. But what about when this guy actually is a genius? Shouldn’t this help your group performance? As it turns out… no, not really.

In 1904 Dr. Charles Spearman discovered that individual human intelligence is measurable, a fact that remains controversial more than 100 years later. He found that individuals who perform well on a certain mental task tend to do well on various other mental tasks. He extracted a determining factor which he coined “g,” for general cognitive ability. A recent study published in Science by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and MIT sought a similar determining factor for collective group intelligence, which they termed “c." If this collective intelligence factor exists, what is it? Is the intelligence of a group merely a reflection of its smartest member? Or is there something more?

Woolley and her colleagues defined factor “c” as the general ability of the group to perform a variety of tasks. Tasks included brainstorming uses for a brick, planning an imaginary shopping trip for the entire group with only one car, and playing checkers as a group against a computer. The groups of subjects were then scored as a team. Factor “c” was revealed as the factor accounting for the vast majority of variation in performance, and was strongly predictive of a group’s future performance. Surprisingly, the average individual intelligence of the group's members and maximum individual intelligence of the smartest member were not strong predictors.

So, if collective intelligence is not defined by the smartest person in the group, or by the average intelligence of the group, what makes some groups better than others?

Collective intelligence was significantly higher in groups with high “social sensitivity.” Social sensitivity was assessed using the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, in which the subject views an image of a person’s eyes, and selects how they believe that person is feeling. It’s a fascinating test, you can take it yourself here to find out how socially sensitive you really are. You had best start practicing now; someday this test might be used to determine your potential value as a group member.

Collective intelligence was also higher in groups with more females, who tend to be significantly more socially sensitive. So I guess the guys out there should re-think whether they want girls on their team if they want to do well…

Basically, this study scientifically validates the importance of group dynamic. So the next time you’re assigned to a group project, play nice - it’s the best predictor of success!

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On the other hand, 'teams' in science usually consist in a handful of group members performing individual tasks that contribute to a project, rather than truly cooperative group work, i.e. three or more people simultaneously participating in one task. Perhaps the 'c' factor doesn't apply when teamwork is reduced to independently contributed individual tasks? (Maybe the scene in most scientific research is still in the realm of the 'g' factor).

It is strange then that in theoretical physics for example the best teams are those with less women, if we consider the best american universities.

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