Women Make Groups Cleverer! (Evidence for collective intelligence)

Fascinating research on group performance suggests two key things:

  1. That the collective intelligence of a group is more than the sum of its parts
  2. That the presence of women in a group is key to high collective intelligence


How do we know this?

Researchers worked with 699 people, divided them into groups of 3-5 people and set them various tasks. The wide range of these tasks was designed to measure all sorts of different aspects of intelligence. These included visual puzzles, brainstorming, making collective moral judgments, and negotiating over limited resources. They also measured the individual intelligence of everyone. They then tried to see how the individual intelligence scores related to the team performance scores. 

When they did a factor analysis of the group performance scores and the intelligence measures, they found one factor that accounted for 43% of the variance and that was not related to either average intelligence of group members nor the maximum intelligence score. It seemed to be something over and above a simple aggregate of intelligence. They consider this factor to represent a measure of the group’s collective intelligence, with collective intelligence defined as ‘the general ability of the group to perform a wide variety of tasks’. The suggestion is that collective intelligence is an emergent group phenomenon that is a product of more than just existing intelligence in the group.

They ran three different studies of this type and compared results. The findings held. On each occasion collective intelligence was found to better account for group performance than measures of individual member intelligence.

So if individual intelligence doesn’t account for group intelligence, what does? The researchers moved on to examine a number of group and individual factors that might be predictors of collective intelligence. Interestingly many of the factors that are thought to be associated with group performance, such as group cohesion, motivation and satisfaction, didn’t predict group performance.


The Findings

Instead they found:

  • That there is a group factor of collective intelligence, conceptually similar to the idea of the individual factor of general intelligence, that has a global effect on performance on many different tasks, and accounts for 43% of the variance in performance. It also is strongly predictive of performance.
  • That collective intelligence is not strongly correlated with the average or maximum intelligence in the group.
  • That collective intelligence is strongly correlated with the average social sensitivity of the group members. This is the strongest predictive factor of group collective intelligence, which, in turn, is a strong predictor of group task performance on a wide range of tasks.
  • That collective intelligence is strongly correlated with the equality of distribution of turn taking.
  • That collective intelligence is strongly correlated with the proportion of women in the group.
  • It is suspected that the last correlation is related to the others e.g. that the presence of women tends to increase the social sensitivity and the equality of turn-taking in the group.


What to do to improve or enhance the collective intelligence of your project or work groups?

  • Help the group recognize that collective intelligence in group decision making and performance is an emergent phenomena of group interaction patterns.
  • Help the group recognize that the emotional life of the group is as important as its intellectual life.
  • Ensure their discussion processes allow all voices to be heard, and that people take turns to talk, and to listen.
  • Ensure that the group is mixed by gender.

For further information see Woolley A W Charbis, C F, Pentland A, Hashmi N, Malone T W (2010) Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science Express. www.scienceexpress.org/30 September 2010


Other Resources

More on using Appreciative Inquiry and other positive psychology techniques at work can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.

See more Thought Provoking articles in the Knowledge Warehouse.



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