Want to Brainstorm New Ideas? Then Limit Your Online Connections

Steve Lohr in the New York Times: “The digitally connected life is both invaluable and inevitable.

Anyone who has the slightest doubt need only walk down the sidewalk of any city street filled with people checking their smartphones for text messages, tweets, news alerts or weather reports or any number of things. So glued to their screens, they run into people or create pedestrian traffic jams.

Just when all the connectedness is useful and when it’s not is often difficult to say. But a recent research paper, published on the Social Science Research Network, titled “Facts and Figuring,” sheds some light on that question.

The research involved customizing a Pentagon lab program for measuring collaboration and information-sharing — a whodunit game, in which the subjects sitting at computers search for clues and solutions to figure out the who, what, when and where of a hypothetical terrorist attack.

The 417 subjects, played more than 1,100 rounds of the 25-minute web-based game, and they were mostly students from the Boston area, selected from the pool of volunteers in the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory and Harvard Business School’s Computer Lab for Experimental Research.

They could share clues and solutions. But the study was designed to measure the results from different network structures — densely clustered networks and unclustered networks of communication. Problem solving, the researchers write, involves “both search for information and search for solutions.” They found that “clustering promotes exploration in information space, but decreases exploration in solution space.”

In looking for unique facts or clues, clustering helped since members of the dense communications networks effectively split up the work and redundant facts were quickly weeded out, making them five percent more efficient. But the number of unique theories or solutions was 17.5 percent higher among subjects who were not densely connected. Clustering reduced the diversity of ideas.

The research paper, said Jesse Shore, a co-author and assistant professor at the Boston University School of Management, contributes to “the growing awareness that being connected all the time has costs. And we put a number to it, in an experimental setting.”

The research, of course, also showed where the connection paid off — finding information, the vital first step in decision making. “There are huge, huge benefits to information sharing,” said Ethan Bernstein, a co-author and assistant professor at the Harvard Business School. “But the costs are harder to measure.”…