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Collective intelligence exists and can be measured

If you have ever wondered if collective intelligence (the intelligence shown by a group of people) really exists, if it is related to the intelligence of every individual member in the group, and if it can be measured, the answer is yes to all three questions. Scientists from several U.S. universities have been able to predict the degree of success of a group of people working together to solve specific tasks by assessing their collective intelligence.


Three striking findings stand out from this study: one, that collective intelligence is poorly correlated with the average individual intelligence of the members of the group; two, the social sensitivity of each individual is the main factor contributing to the group’s collective intelligence; and three, that the inclusion of women tends to enhance the intellectual capacity of the group. The study’s authors hope the results come to be applied to improve those tasks, such as in business management, which require group operations.
Psychologists had already repeatedly proven that a statistical factor called general intelligence emerges from the correlation of the performance of cognitive tasks by each individual who is part of a group. However, it was not known whether groups of people had collective intelligence, according to Anita Williams Woolley and her colleagues at the Center for Collective Intelligence at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), authors of the article published in the journal Science.

In two studies of 699 individuals who worked in groups of two to five people, the researchers found evidence of collective intelligence that explains how these groups performed the tasks set by the researchers.
The tasks focused on developing new ways of thinking and ideas regarding a specific topic, the resolution of visual puzzles, coming to collective moral judgments, the drafting of documents and negotiating the distribution of limited resources.

Individuals versus the collective
"In the first study, the average intelligence of the individuals in each group, which we had previously tested, was found to be correlated, but only weakly, with the intelligence of the group as a whole," said Woolley. "We switched to a more complex task and saw that the results correlated with the collective intelligence of the group and not the intelligence of the individual natural leader that had emerged."

"The most influential factor proved to be the average of individuals’ level of social sensitivity." The researchers studied the characteristics of the individuals in each group, such as extraversion, personality, and social sensitivity. Between these individual characteristics, "the most influential factor in the behavior of the group proved to be the average of the individuals’ level of social sensitivity," Woolley said in an interview with Science Podcast. What is social sensitivity? It is defined, in short, as a person's ability to adopt the perspective of another, and previous investigations have established ways to measure it. "We call it reading the mind through the eyes, but in reality it is the ability to interpret the facial expressions of others, which focuses on the area around the eyes," she said. 

Of the factors influencing the collective functioning of the group, the pattern of internal communication, the interaction among its members, had the greatest impact. "If everyone contributed to the conversation, the group’s collective intelligence turned out to be higher than if some members of the group monopolized the situation," she said.

The value of women

Finally, the most unexpected conclusion was that the proportion of women in the group influenced its collective intelligence. "We saw that more women equaled higher levels of collective intelligence, but when we studied this in depth, the effect is explained by the factor of social sensitivity," said Woolley. This means that if women are added to a group it will only work more intelligently if these women have a high degree of social sensitivity. However, Woolley also noted, that when no prior information is available and a group has to be formed, "it would be better to incorporate a number of women, because their average level of social sensitivity is higher than men’s." So the motto could be If the group is dysfunctional, add a woman.

The path that this investigation has opened is wide and far-reaching. It describes how to create groups with higher levels of collective intelligence and how to improve on existing ones. In addition, it excludes factors once considered important to the functioning of a group, such as cohesion among its members and individual motivation and satisfaction, and raises doubts about the functioning of the group when its members never meet face to face.

Participants in the first of the two studies recently published were recruited via Internet in the city of Boston and were compensated economically for their participation. Fifty-one percent were males and the ages fell between 18 and 66. Once groups of three people were formed, they were commissioned tasks of four different types: generation (developing new ideas or information), choice (of the correct answer, for example), trading (resolving conflicts of interest or points of view) and performance (psychomotor tasks, for example).

The second study included 579 people, of which about 40% were men, belonging to the same age groups as before, divided into 152 groups of 2 to 5 members, plus some individuals who worked alone. The tasks were the same as in the first study plus five new ones: words to complete (they were given, for example, the first and last letters), spatial problems, estimates of quantities, reproducing a drawing with a computer and making an architectural design based on modules with strict criteria.



genaro (de Argentina) 11/02/2011
Excelente, apasionante nota que estimula directamente mi rol de Facilitador y Coach de equipos de trabajo. Muchas gracias! Genaro Guarino

Jovi 23/10/2010
Un artículo muy interesante sobre la importancia de lo social en la inteligencia y lo importante que es un buen grado de feminidad en los grupos. La inteligencia es algo de grupo, del colectivo, a ver si así desaparecen ya los individualismos.

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