Sunday, October 3, 2010

Is there such a thing as collective intelligence?

There is a long running debate in psychology over whether or not there is such a thing as general (or g-factor) intelligence. Charles Spearman, in the 1920's, proposed the existence of such a factor as a way of explaining why schoolchildren's grades in seemingly unrelated subjects were correlated.

A recently published article in Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.1193147) extends this concept to groups of people, arguing that groups have a “collective intelligence” that predicts their performance on a range of collaborative tasks. The study, of 699 people working in small groups, found that groups which performed well on one type of collaborative task tended to perform well on others while groups that performed poorly on one type of task tended to perform poorly on others. They found that neither the intelligence of any particular group member nor the average individual intelligence of the group members were particularly good predictors of group behaviour. Instead, the study found the degree to which group members were attuned to social cues (e.g., recognizing whether other group members were annoyed or worried) and their willingness to take turns speaking were more important, as was the proportion of women in the group.

Personally, I have huge problems with the specifics of this type of study -- where grandiose claims are made based on artificial tests that bear little resemblance to real world situations. More fundamentally, if such a group trait exists, it is likely to be an emergent phenomenon rather than one that can be explained in reductionist terms (e.g., through reference to the individual psychological traits and simple interactional processes identified in the article). That said, they deserve credit for revisiting the study of small groups (which sociology largely abandoned after the 1950's) and for their emphasis on understanding collaborative behaviour. All in all an interesting supplement to Elinor Ostron's work on processes of collaborative governance.

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