“Madness of Crowds” or “Wisdom of Groups”?

Last October, my colleague Martha Mangelsdorf wrote a blog post about a report published in Science on the collective intelligence that emerges when groups work together.

Co-authored by MIT’s Thomas W. Malone, Alexander Pentland, and Nada Hashmi, along with Anita Williams Woolley of Carnegie-Mellon and Christopher F. Chabris of Union College, the Science story details two studies about how groups perform.

The researchers concluded that “group intelligence” correlates less with the intelligence of the individuals and more with the social sensitivity of group members, an equality in how conversation is handled, and even the proportion of females in the group.

A Boston Globe story last month, “Group IQ,” picked up on the Science report and added a few interesting details. “People have been studying group dynamics for decades, seeing crowds variously as sources of madness and wisdom,” writes the Globe’s Carolyn Y. Johnson. “[Senior author of the study] Malone and colleagues could not find an example in which people had asked the relatively simple question of whether groups had intelligence, the same way individual people do.”

Why has that question not been asked before? Why is it difficult to think of a group as having a measurable intelligence?

“Intuitively, we still attribute too much to individuals and not enough to groups,” Malone told the Globe. “Part of that may just be that it’s simpler; it’s simpler to say the success of a company depended on the CEO for good or bad, but in reality the success of a company depends on a whole lot more. Essentially what’s happening as our society becomes more advanced and more developed is that more things are done by groups of people than by individuals. In a certain sense, our intuitions about how that works haven’t caught up with the reality of modern life.”

Iain Couzin, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, told the Globe, “It’s kind of staggering, it’s 2010 and we’re only beginning to realize what look in this paper to be very strong effects. . . I run a relatively large lab, and I was thinking reading this paper about how I could make my lab more effective.”

In the studies, researchers watched teams of two to five people play checkers against a computer and build architectural structures with Legos, noting their interactions and measuring each group’s relative “intelligence.”

Says the Globe story:

“Though intriguing, this work is just a first step. What Malone and colleagues are ultimately interested in is how to predict a group’s abilities in real-life scenarios — how they handle an environmental cleanup or design a blockbuster project. Legos and checkers are a surrogate for complicated tasks, but the ultimate test will be in determining whether collective intelligence truly predicts how teams, of all sizes, work on everyday tasks. Since groups and situations in the real world have fluidity and complexity whose individual components can be difficult to break down and measure, however, other research is focusing on dissecting the dynamics that build to group behavior.”

“There’s been a tendency to focus on the negative, the mob psychology, the idea that people can bring out the worst in each other,” Robert Goldstone, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, told the Globe. “There’s just as much evidence that people can bring out the best in each other.”

3 Comments On: “Madness of Crowds” or “Wisdom of Groups”?

  • Michelle James | January 10, 2011

    Thanks for this post. I see the distinction as (1) in “Group Think” the whole is less than the sum of the parts and (2) in “Group Cocreation” the whole (collective IQ) becomes greater than the sum of the parts. It depends on how you set the conditions. One way (of many) to cultivate collective intelligence and “bring the the best in each other” from a team is using principles and practices of improv theater. The same principles of engagement that allow an improv group to co-creatively improvise a full-length play – where everyone contributes – can be applied in organizational settings. See this article for more on that: http://bit.ly/bAwFlZ

  • The Collective Intelligence of Groups | January 31, 2011

    [...] January, Leslie Brokaw posted a blog on the MIT Sloan Management Review titled “Madness of Crowd or Wisdom of Groups“. The article points to some very interesting research in the area. For one,  a paper [...]

  • mnulfateh | September 7, 2011

    People in group give better performance.
    Collective approach is always better.

    Muhammad Naeem ul Fateh, PhD

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