Photo: CC 3.0 via Biswarup Ganguly

It is getting to be a cliché: crowds are a lot smarter than the individuals that comprise them. There is a famous story about Google asking 2 groups of employees to guess the likely date for completion of an R&D project; the first group was made up of “experts”—the people involved in the project. The other group was made up of the “non-experts”—people unrelated to the project, but who were informed of the general objectives and the steps that need to be taken to accomplish them. Lo and behold, the “non-experts” were invariably more on target than the “experts”. A fascinating observation, but how does one explain it?


Smart people don’t make a difference?

In the 9/30/10 issue of Science Online, an article titled “Evidence of a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups,” describes an interesting experiment carried out by Anita Williams Woolley and her colleagues at Carnegie-Mellon University. The investigators wanted to find out if, in addition to “general intelligence“, there is something else that determines group intelligence.

General intelligence can be defined as correlations among people’s performance on a wide variety of cognitive tasks. In other words, in individuals, general intelligence is a measure of each person’s tendency to perform similarly on different types of cognitive tests suggesting an underlying general, intellectual competence. One familiar index of general intelligence is the IQ (Intelligence Quotient) score.

Intuitively, it can be expected that members of a group with high general intelligence would have a disproportionate influence on the “group intelligence“. Also, one would expect group cohesion to be a big factor in the group’s collective intelligence.

The results? None of the above mattered. Surprisingly, two factors mattered the most:

  • The proportion of women in the group; the higher percent and the more “intelligent” were the collective performance. Since a lot of evidence exists that there is a high correlation between the female gender and sensitivity (or “emotional intelligence”), then it is reasonable to deduce that emotional intelligence is an important factor in determining group performance.
  • The other surprising factor: the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking. In other words, how democratic was the conversation, how much every individual participated in the discussion was also important.


On a second thought…

Is it really surprising? I have witnessed the dynamics of many conversations in academic and corporate settings. The male participants were mostly expounding on their positions, rarely listening to other’s arguments. It was more akin to a contest, or sometimes a blood sport, than the give and take of a conversation.

Almost invariably, it was the female participants who could sense the dynamics behind the individuals’ arguments and drain the testosterone juice out of the conversation. This is not to say that females are necessarily meek or lacking convictions. Witness strong personalities such as Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meir. Whether you agree or disagree with their politics, their cabinets acted with extraordinary intelligence, even though some of its members were self-aggrandizing blowhards and others were plain morons.

The democratic aspect of collective intelligence is not surprising as well. The equal distribution of discussion time, connoting respect for every opinion, places pressure on each individual to contribute his or her best; each opinion counts, each individual has a “skin in the game“. It brings to mind President Obama’s insistence on calling on every person present at a meeting to express his or her opinion.


Is that all there is?

Obviously not. What about people who are more persuasive than others? Don’t they wield more influence on the group’s performance? Conversely, what about people who sense where the conversational wind blows and tend to go with it? They likely detract from the collective intelligence because they acquiesce to the strong “opinionator”, thus, in a sense, reducing the collective intelligence of the group to the “general intelligence” of the dominant figure.

But this is a great start. From corporations, to focus groups, to political science—wisdom of the crowd is a vital force that needs to be sliced and diced until it is more thoroughly understood.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


  1. This column by Dov and the factors it explores do not translate in any intellectually rigorous way to assertions that a random group of people on Facebook or responding to a post on a website will be wiser than experts. (Wikipedia is a whole different issue.) Random Post No. 7 may be brilliant, but you miss it because Random Post Nos. 8-10 put it down. Or you get misleading information until Random Post. No. 17 nails it. The give-and-take and real-time interaction of a real crowd has merit that can certainly be replicated online but cannot in any way be taken for granted. See: Wisdom of Crowds Talking About Sporets.


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