Thomas Malone, founding director of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence, believes that groups can make better decisions than smart individuals acting alone. In an interview with The Economist‘s Open Future initiative, Malone discusses the factors that contribute to a group’s collective intelligence.
Lots of smart individuals are not enough
Malone assumed his research would confirm that a group’s collective intelligence is “mostly predicted by the average individual intelligence of the group members—that is to say, the smarter the members, the smarter the group.” But he found levels of individual intelligence had only a “moderately strong” correlation with the group’s collective intelligence. “In other words, just putting a bunch of smart people together doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have a smart group.”
This finding is not surprising to anyone who has ever spent time in a conference room with a bunch of really bright individuals. As I am fond of saying, Very often a group’s sum IQ can decline with the addition of each new member.
Three factors contribute to group intelligence
Malone’s research identified three factors that correlate to a group’s collective intelligence:
- Social intelligence: Groups whose members demonstrated “high social perceptiveness” were “more collectively intelligent than other groups.” (Malone measured social perceptiveness by an individual’s ability to guess the mental state of a person in a picture.)
- Conversational turn taking: Members of intelligent groups participate equally in conversation. “When one or two people dominated the conversation, the group was, on average, less intelligent than when participation was more evenly distributed.”
- More women than men: Malone found that the higher the proportion of women, the smarter the group; although this finding may be related to the first factor because women tend to do better on measures of social perceptiveness.
Confirmation of Google’s research into high performing teams
Malone research seems to reinforce Google’s findings that on high performing teams members
- Speak in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.”
- Have high “average social sensitivity”—aspects of what is known as psychological safety: a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
Design your meetings to achieve high collective intelligence
MIT’s and Google’s research is compelling—and actionable. Want to maximize your team’s collective intelligence and improve their decision-making? Don’t leave the outcome to chance. Be intentional about meeting design:
- Nurture social perceptiveness: Create a psychologically safe, risk-free environment where participants are cued repeatedly to listen deeply, respectfully and empathically.
- Structure deliberate processes: Ensure that each member—even those most reflective and shy—has equal voice and stature.
For more specific approaches, see How to avoid group think and achieve the wisdom of the crowd.