Group Think

Anita-Williams Woolley

When it comes to intelligence, the whole can indeed be greater than the sum of its parts.

A new study co-authored by Carnegie Mellon University, MIT and Union College researchers documents the existence of collective intelligence among groups of people who cooperate well. The findings show that group intelligence extends beyond how smart the group's individual members are — and that the tendency to cooperate effectively is linked to the number of women in a group.

In the study, which is to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Science, the researchers discovered that groups featuring the right kind of internal dynamics perform well on a wide range of assignments. This finding has potential applications for businesses and other organizations.

"There is a consistency to how groups perform different kinds of tasks," says Anita Williams Woolley, the paper's lead author and an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business.

For example, the ability of members to read the facial expressions in others and make attributions about what they are thinking and feeling was significantly related to collective intelligence, Woolley said.

"Also, in groups where one person dominated, the group was less collectively intelligent than in groups where the conversational turns were more evenly distributed," she added.

Teams containing more women demonstrated greater collective intelligence compared to teams containing fewer women. Woolley said that finding is related to social sensitivity because women, on average, are more socially sensitive than men.

To arrive at their conclusions, the researchers placed 699 people in groups of two to five. The groups worked together on tasks that ranged from visual puzzles to negotiations, brainstorming, games and complex rule-based design assignments. The researchers concluded that a group's collective intelligence accounted for about 40 percent of the variation in performance on this wide range of tasks.

Given how much is often riding on the performance of teams, better predictability of which teams are going to perform well could have huge benefits for a company's management.

"Right now, organizations have no means of identifying which groups offer more in terms of potential value to an organization," Woolley explained. "Thus when making decisions to reorganize they have no means of gauging the value they may be destroying when dissembling groups."

Woolley believes the research has already identified a general principle indicating how the whole adds up to something more than the sum of its parts.

"It really calls into question our whole notion of what intelligence is. What individuals can do all by themselves is becoming less important; what matters more is what they can do with others and by using technology, " she said.

Related Links: Read Article on | Read Press Release | Tepper School of Business

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