Can Collective Intelligence Be Measured and Predicted?
Anita Woolley, Tepper School Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory, speaks about her research on collective intelligence.
I have done research on teams from the time that I started doing research, always interested in the fact that there are some teams that really click and work well together, and it's not about necessarily the talent of the individual members. You know, you can come up with all kinds of examples of sports teams, for example, that have stars but don't play well together, and then other teams that have pretty ordinary players, but really have magic when they come together. And so I would say I was always really drawn to those examples and wanting to identify what it was that was different about those teams.
The seminal study on collective intelligence was published in Science in 2010. It was an article called "Evidence for Collective Intelligence in Human Groups." Are there teams that can consistently perform well together? Could we actually measure that as a characteristic of the team and use it to predict how that same team would perform in the future? So we measure collective intelligence much in the same way that you measure IQ in individuals. There's a set of problems, but instead of the individuals working on the problems, the team works on the problems. And the problems require the team to collaborate in a variety of different ways.
So one of the first things that became apparent was that the gender composition of the team was important. Initially, at first, it looked like just the number of women — the more women you had, the better. And so in our initial studies, we found this correlation. Well, over time, now that we've collected data on hundreds of teams, we've found that it's actually a curvilinear effect, meaning that you do need some men. There needs to be gender diversity. And so you have the most participation in a team that has gender diversity but with a tilt toward having more women. In the study where we found that ethnic diversity was beneficial for collective intelligence, we actually were looking at a variety of things. We were really interested in physiological synchrony. So is there a benefit when teams synchronize on a very deep level, maybe even unconscious level?
Whenever we talk about these findings, especially with leaders, we make two points. One, there is sort of an ethical social responsibility aspect to this for sure. But the research is really supporting that there are some pretty important benefits to bringing together diverse people into groups. And as more organizations lean on collaboration for solving their toughest problems, they're going to see more benefits to having diverse employees.