Group Genius and Collective Intelligence

A new study in Science magazine* provides additional evidence for group genius. My own research with collaborating groups has repeatedly demonstrated that groups manifest emergent properties, that are not reducible to the individual characteristics of the group members; this new study confirms my own findings, using a novel qualitative approach combined with “smart badges” designed by MIT’s Alex “Sandy” Pentland.

The researchers studied 699 people that were placed into groups of between 2 and 5 people. Then, they had the groups solve visual puzzles, engage in brainstorming, solve collective moral judgments, and negotiate over limited resources. From the group performance on these tasks, they derived a measure of “collective intelligence”. Using statistical methods, they found a common factor that accounted for more than 43% of the variance on all of the group tasks; they called this measure of group genius c, following the longstanding use of g to indicate “general intelligence” of an individual as measured by standard intelligence tests.

They also had each individual group member take a standard intelligence test, to identify the g score of each group member. And guess what? The average intelligence of all of a group’s members is not significantly correlated with collective intelligence! They also found that the maximum g score was not correlated with c.

When they combined the results of this first study with a second study, they found a moderate relationship between average g and maximum g and c. But c was still a much better predictor of a group’s performance than either average g or maximum g.

What I particularly like about this study is that they also looked at what factors caused a high c. Group cohesion did not; motivation did not; satisfaction did not. The factors that resulted in a high c were: the average social sensitivity of the group members; and the extent to which participation in the conversation was equally distributed across group members (they used the sociometric “smart” badges to measure this). (Some news stories have reported that the presence of women in the group increased its c score, but this effect was largely mediated by social sensitivity, because women score higher on social sensitivity. In other words, it’s not having a female per se that increases c; it’s having members with higher social sensitivity, and they could be male or female.)

This finding confirms the message of my research, as reported in my book Group Genius: effective creative groups display emergent properties that cannot be explained in terms of the aggregated properties of the individual members. I use a different methodology, interaction analysis, to identify the group processes associated with effective group genius; using that methodology, I also found that equal participation results in higher group performance. The key advance of this study is the development of a quantitative measure of “collective intelligence” that meets many of the criteria required of an effective psychometric (or sociometric) assessment. My own methodology of interaction analysis allows a richer explanation of what’s going on; I identified nine other properties of group interaction associated with group genius.

I look forward to reading more great studies from this research team!

*Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. Anita Williams Woolley,1,* Christopher F. Chabris,2,3 Alex Pentland,3,4 Nada Hashmi,3,5 Thomas W. Malone3,5. Originally published in Science Express on 30 September 2010; Science 29 October 2010: Vol. 330. no. 6004, pp. 686 – 688

Using Cell Phones to Enhance Group Collaboration

So many people check their PDAs and text in meetings.  This is a sure sign that the meeting is boring and ineffective.  Is there some way these portable devices could actually increase group effectiveness?

The Meeting Mediator (MM) is a wireless system that monitors group conversation and provides real-time feedback.  The idea is that participants can get feedback and then modify their behavior when they’re doing something that reduces group effectiveness: for example, one person dominating the conversation instead of everyone contributing equally.

MM was developed at MIT in Alex (Sandy) Pentland’s lab.*  Each person at the meeting wears a special “badge” containing a wireless microphone and a transmitter, along with a motion sensor like you have in the Nintendo Wii (Sandy calls this a “sociometric badge”), and each person carries a cell phone that displays the feedback on how the meeting is going.  The badge can measure body movement and can track a few simple voice features, like tone and volume.  The computer system can track everyone’s badges together and can tell how close people are to each other, and how the conversation is going: is there a lot of interruption?  Are people pausing for a second or two in between their turns of conversation?

The most interesting feature of the system is the display: when everyone is contributing equally, a ball appears in the center of your cell phone screen.  But if some people are talking alot but others are quiet, then the ball moves off-center.  Around the sides of the screen are tiny icons that represent each of the participants, and the ball moves closer to the ones who are talking the most.

When Pentland’s research team compared groups with and without MM, they found fascinating results:

1. With MM, there’s less overlapping speech.  That’s because they were more likely to talk as a whole group, instead of splitting up into smaller subgroups.

2. With MM, each turn of dialogue is shorter, meaning that the group is interacting more.

3. With MM, dominant people were less dominant, and the quieter people were more likely to talk just as much as the more talkative people.

Finally, they claim that it wasn’t distracting for people to keep glancing at their cell phone displays.  They based their claim on a measure of “movement energy”, basically using the motion sensor to see how much people moved around during the meeting.  Their assumption is that if you move around more, you’re more nervous, and with the MM displays, there wasn’t increased movement.  I don’t find that very convincing…but the researchers could interview the participants afterwards, or they could analyze videotapes to see how people interacting with the devices.  Were they nervously glancing down repeatedly?  Pointing at them?  Holding them up to show them to others?  (“Look how dominant you are, you’d better shut up!”)

This is great stuff and I can’t wait to read more about this new technology.

*Taemie Kim, Agnes Chang, Lindsey Holland, and Alex (Sandy) Pentland, 2008.  Meeting Mediator: Enhancing Group Collaboration and Leadership with Sociometric Feedback. To appear in Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. San Diego, CA. November 2008.