‘Collective intelligence’ is not necessarily present in virtual groups

Jordan B. Barlow and Alan R. Dennis at LSE: “Do groups of smart people perform better than groups of less intelligent people?

Research published in Science magazine in 2010 reported that groups, like individuals, have a certain level of “collective intelligence,” such that some groups perform consistently well across many different types of tasks, while other groups perform consistently poorly. Collective intelligence is similar to individual intelligence, but at the group level.

Interestingly, the Science study found that collective intelligence was not related to the individual intelligence of group members; groups of people with higher intelligence did not perform better than groups with lower intelligence. Instead, the study found that high performing teams had members with higher social sensitivity – the ability to read the emotions of others using visual facial cues.

Social sensitivity is important when we sit across a table from each other. But what about online, when we exchange emails or text messages? Does social sensitivity matter when I can’t see your face?

We examined the collective intelligence in an online environment in which groups used text-based computer-mediated communication. We followed the same procedures as the original Science study, which used the approach typically used to measure individual intelligence. In individual intelligence tests, a person completes several small “tasks” or problems. An analysis of task scores typically demonstrates that task scores are correlated, meaning that if a person does well on one problem, it is likely that they did well on other problems….

The results were not what we expected. The correlations between our groups’ performance scores were either not statistically significant or significantly negative, as shown in Table 1. The average correlation between any two tasks was -0.05, indicating that performance on one task was not correlated with performance on other tasks. In other words, groups who performed well on one of the tasks were unlikely to perform well on the other tasks…

Our findings challenge the conclusion reported in Science that groups have a general collective intelligence analogous to individual intelligence. Our study shows that no collective intelligence factor emerged when groups used a popular commercial text-based online tool. That is, when using tools with limited visual cues, groups that performed well on one task were no more likely to perform well on a different task. Thus the “collective intelligence” factor related to social sensitivity that was reported in Science is not collective intelligence; it is instead a factor associated with the ability to work well using face-to-face communication, and does not transcend media….(More)”