Forget IQ: The Emerging Science of Collective Intelligence

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Assembling teams is an art, one that involves intuitive thinking and — let’s face it — a lot of guesswork. A new study, however, is transforming this critical task into a science.

Though knowledge on group intelligence is still in its nascent stages, it’s long been known that an individual’s intelligence speaks volumes. Past studies have shown that it can predict everything from educational attainment to how likely a person will end up being an unwed teen parent. When British psychologist Charles Spearman introduced the concept of general intelligence in 1904, he was likely just as emphatic about the word intelligence as he was with the word general, as he saw intelligence as a measure that can predict performance in multiple domains. In other words, consistency is key. (More on It’s True: We Shop Till it Hurts)

Cut to 2010, and group intelligence is fast emerging as the next frontier in this field. Schools and companies are increasingly learning the value of teamwork, and researchers like Carnegie Mellon University organizational psychologist Anita Williams Woolley are searching for ways to boost group performance.

In one crucial development, Woolley and several collaborators found that a group’s collective intelligence can indeed be measured and used to predict performance in different realms. She worked with MIT researchers Christopher Chabris, Alexander Pentland, Nada Hashmi and Thomas Malone for the study, which was recently published in the journal Science. (More on Is Genius Born or Can It Be Learned?)

“In the same way that it is for individuals, there is this consistency that characterizes how groups perform,” Woolley says. “We saw that groups who did well in one task did well in others too.”

For the study, the researchers first randomly assigned 699 individuals to groups of two to five. They then employed social psychologist Joseph E. McGrath’s team-task taxonomy to measure how the groups performed in a series of exercises involving brainstorming, physical coordination and even moral reasoning. The researchers also tested each participant for social sensitivity, personality type and individual intelligence, hoping that they would find member characteristics that can suggest ways to build stronger teams.

And they did. For starters, the researchers found that, when composing a team, it’s better to select women, or at least cooperative candidates, over the next Einstein. “Even if a smart person knows the right strategy for the team to use, the other members can still choose not to listen,” Woolley explains. “For that smart person’s intelligence to be fully utilized by a group, that person needs to also have social skills.” (More on Are We Failing Our Geniuses?)

So why women? It’s simply because they tend to be more socially sensitive. As Woolley’s female colleagues like to quip, “If you often don’t know ahead of time what people’s social skill levels would be, you better have some women in there if you’re placing your bets.” A non-female researcher agrees. “It makes sense,” says social psychologist Scott Tindale. “Women generally are more collectivistic. They care more about getting along than males on average.”

The significance of social skills boils down to group dynamics. Those who relate better detect more subtle cues, paving the way for conversational turn-taking — the apparent hallmark of effective collaboration.

A recent study on team brainstorming published in the journal The Accounting Review bears this out. After analyzing 179 audit teams, researchers led by North Carolina State University’s Joe Brazel noted brainstorming attributes, including openness to input from all team members, that led to real-world rewards. Asked how Woolley’s study relates to their own, Brazel says, “The two were very complementary and point to the same findings.”

For Woolley, the implications of the discovery of this collective intelligence seem boundless. This paves the way for studies on other forms of collaboration, she says, including those enabled by technology that her peers at MIT are studying. Not only can standardized tests for groups be developed, but gone are the days of wasting precious dollars just because a group didn’t quite mesh. (More on The Downside of Being a Child Prodigy)

That is, if the group stays intact. “Collective intelligence is likely to be stable so long as the group itself is stable,” says Jim Larson, the chair of Loyola University Chicago’s psychology department. “If the composition of the group changes, then all bets are off.”

So while the best and the brightest may not be the best for the team, one aphorism may be just as true: It only takes one bad apple to spoil the bushel.