ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
You could look at a Senate committee as a sort of a team, a group of people who are supposed to be working together to solve problems - at least they're supposed to be working together. You see this kind of group problem-solving everywhere.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Not just in government, but in science and in business, people are set to work solving problems. You might think the trick to getting the smartest team would be to get the smartest people together. Well, a new study says that may not be right.
Here's NPR's Joe Palca.
JOE PALCA: Carnegie Mellon University assistant professor Anita Woolley has been interested for some time now in what it means to say a group is intelligent. So she created teams of two to five people drawn from some 700 volunteers and asked them to solve various kinds of problems.
Professor ANITA WOOLLEY (Organizational Behavior and Theory, Carnegie Mellon University): For example, we had some brainstorming tasks, where the idea is to get as many ideas and as creative ideas as possible.
PALCA: There were other tasks where there was one right answer and still others where the teams had to come up with innovative solutions to a problem. They kept transcripts of those sessions. Here, Woolley's students Jonathan Kush, Ishani Aggarwal and Silvia Manolache recreate a problem-solving session, reading from those transcripts.
Mr. JONATHAN KUSH: The problem is that we have to decide whether the star basketball player should be kept in the team despite cheating on the exam, right?
Ms. ISHANI AGGARWAL: Yeah, I think they're trying to see how we'll punish him.
Ms. SILVIA MANOLACHE: It looks like keeping a player like that would mean fighting school policies.
Mr. KUSH: Yeah, I would keep him out of the next game, unless it's a playoff. At the very minimum.
Ms. AGGARWAL: Yeah, I think that's the best option. He deserves at least that.
PALCA: The participants in this group took turns discussing the problem, coming up with various angles and issues.
Here's how another group attacked the same problem.
Mr. KUSH: I say he should not be allowed to play.
Ms. AGGARWAL: He should not be allowed to play for the semester, at least.
Ms. MANOLACHE: Well...
Mr. KUSH: I think he should not be allowed to play for his college career at all. It looks like it may just be a status thing. He just cheated on an exam. He should at least have been creative and tried to cheat effectively or something. I hate people who are treated nicely for athletics. They're stupid.
PALCA: No one else got a word in, and there were no alternatives to what the one noisy participant was proposing. Woolley says this was an example of a moral reasoning task. She says to do well a group had to consider multiple perspectives.
Prof. WOOLLEY: In groups where the conversation was more evenly distributed, where you had better participation among all and more equal participation among all of the group members, the groups were more collectively intelligent.
PALCA: Not only was it annoying, but groups where one person dominated tended not to come up with as balanced and thoughtful a result; not as intelligent as the first group's effort.
When Woolley looked for the qualities that made successful groups successful, she found that the individual intelligence of group members was unrelated to the outcome.
Prof. WOOLLEY: A few things that were related, however, were surprising. One was the proportion of females in the group.
PALCA: As she reports in the journal Science, the more females, the higher the group intelligence - although Woolley thinks it's not so much gender as a quality of social sensitivity, that women on average have more of than men.
Thomas Malone is one of Woolley's collaborators. He heads something called the Center for Collective Intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He's hoping this research will lead to great things.
Professor THOMAS MALONE (Founding Director, Center for Collective Intelligence, MIT): Imagine you could go to a top management team in a company and give them a collective intelligence test that would then predict how well that team would respond to a very wide range of challenges they might face.
PALCA: Something a board of directors might be very interested to learn.
But Steve Kozlowski says such a test is probably a ways off. Koslowski is a psychologist at Michigan State University. He says, first of all, Woolley's study only looked at a small set of tasks.
Professor STEVE KOZLOWSKI (Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Michigan State University): And it's really very, very difficult to generalize from the small set of tasks that were examined in these studies, using college students, ad hoc teams, very short periods of measurement.
PALCA: And second of all, he's not convinced Woolley and her colleagues are measuring intelligence. He says they're just measuring how well groups do on a limited number of problems.
Prof. KOZLOWSKI: Likening it to intelligence is what I find - I wouldn't call it controversial. I just don't see any evidence to support it.
PALCA: Still, Kozlowski says there may well be such a thing as collective intelligence, but he thinks it will take a lot more work to define it.
Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.
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