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CDPXXX10.1177/0963721415599543Woolley et al.Collective Intelligence and Group Performance

Current Directions in Psychological

Collective Intelligence and Science

2015, Vol. 24(6) 420­–424
© The Author(s) 2015
Group Performance Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0963721415599543

Anita Williams Woolley1, Ishani Aggarwal2, and

Thomas W. Malone3,4
Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University; 2Brazilian School of Public and Business Administration,
Fundação Getulio Vargas; 3Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and 4Center for
Collective Intelligence, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

We review recent research on collective intelligence, which we define as the ability of a group to perform a wide
variety of tasks. We focus on two influences on a group’s collective intelligence: (a) group composition (e.g., the
members’ skills, diversity, and intelligence) and (b) group interaction (e.g., structures, processes, and norms). We also
call for more research to investigate how social interventions and technological tools can be used to enhance collective

collective intelligence, group performance, group composition, group, process

Why do some groups perform better than others? One “collective intelligence” exists for groups of people. Our
clearly important factor is the skills of the group mem- recent research sought to address this gap.
bers. But even groups with comparably skilled members In our initial studies, we found converging evidence of
can have radically different levels of performance. a general collective-intelligence factor that predicts a
Considerable work in fields such as social psychology, group’s performance on a wide variety of tasks (Woolley,
organizational behavior, and industrial psychology has Chabris, Pentland, Hashmi, & Malone, 2010). The groups
focused on the various factors that predict group perfor- in our studies ranged in size from two to five members
mance (Hackman, 1987; Ilgen, Hollenbeck, Johnson, & and spent approximately 5 hours together in our labora-
Jundt, 2005; Larson, 2010). In almost all cases, however, tory, working on a series of tasks that required a range of
these studies have focused on a specific task and tried to qualitatively different collaboration processes (McGrath,
characterize what leads most groups to perform well on 1984). The tasks included creative brainstorming prob-
that kind of task. In these studies, the differences among lems, puzzles involving verbal or mathematical reason-
groups within an experimental condition have usually ing, negotiation tasks, and moral-reasoning problems. A
been treated as undesirable error. factor analysis of the groups’ scores on all of these tasks
Here, we focus instead on the general ability of a par- revealed a single dominant factor explaining 43% of the
ticular group to perform well across a wide range of dif- variance in performance. This is consistent with the 30%
ferent tasks. We call this ability the collective intelligence to 50% of variance typically explained by the first factor
of the group, since it is precisely analogous to intelli- derived from the scores of individuals doing many differ-
gence at the individual level. When individuals perform a ent cognitive tasks (Chabris, 2007). In individuals, this
wide variety of different cognitive tasks, psychologists factor is called intelligence. For groups, we call this factor
have repeatedly found that a single statistical factor pre-
dicts much of the variance in their performance (e.g.,
Deary, 2012; Spearman, 1904). This factor is often called
Corresponding Author:
general intelligence, or g. But, perhaps surprisingly, until Anita Williams Woolley, Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon
recently none of the research on group performance had University, 5000 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15217
systematically examined whether a similar kind of E-mail:
Collective Intelligence and Group Performance 421

collective intelligence, or c, and it is a measure of the In the studies of collective intelligence described
general effectiveness of a group on a wide range of tasks. above, it was also found that the average and maximum
In addition to the tasks used to calculate c, we gave intelligence of individual group members was correlated
each group a more complex criterion task, which with c, but only moderately so. So, having a group of
required a combination of several of the different col- smart people is not enough, alone, to make a smart
laboration processes measured by the other tasks. In the group. But if having smart people is not enough to make
first study, groups played checkers as a team against a a group smart, what is?
computer opponent. In the second study, groups com- A much stronger predictor of c was the average social
pleted an architectural design problem. As expected, we perceptiveness of group members, as measured by the
found that c was a significant predictor of group perfor- Reading the Mind in the Eyes (RME) Test (Baron-Cohen,
mance on both of these criterion tasks, and—surpris- Wheelwright, Hill, Raste, & Plumb, 2001). This test mea-
ingly—the average individual intelligence of group sures people’s ability to judge others’ emotions from
members was not. At least twice as much variance in looking only at pictures of their eyes. Groups with a high
performance was predicted by c as by individual average score on this test were more collectively intelli-
intelligence. gent than other groups.
More recent work has replicated these basic findings We also found that the proportion of women in the
in both face-to-face and online groups (Engel, Woolley, group was a significant predictor of c. However, this
Jing, Chabris, & Malone, 2014), in groups of MBA stu- result was largely explained statistically by the fact that
dents working together over the course of a semester women, on average, score higher on tests like the RME
(Aggarwal & Woolley, 2014), in online gaming groups than men. So, it may be that what is needed for a group
(Kim et al., 2015), and in groups from multiple cultures to be collectively intelligent is a number of people who
(Engel et al., 2015). Taken together, these results provide are high in social perceptiveness. And if a group is made
strong support for the existence of a general collective- up of highly socially perceptive people, then it may not
intelligence factor that predicts the performance of a matter much whether they are men or women. When we
group on a wide range of tasks. tried to predict collective intelligence from a group’s
average social perceptiveness, the percentage of women
in the group, and the distribution of speaking turns (dis-
What Predicts Collective Intelligence?
cussed further below), we found that all three factors had
Existing research suggests that group collective intelli- similar predictive power for c, but only the predictive
gence is likely to be an emergent property that results power of social perceptiveness was statistically signifi-
from both bottom-up and top-down processes. Bottom-up cant (Woolley et al., 2010).
processes involve the aggregation of group-member In a study of online groups (Engel et  al., 2014), we
characteristics that contribute to and enhance group col- found that social perceptiveness and proportion of
laboration. Top-down processes include group struc- women were just as highly correlated with c as they
tures, norms, and routines that regulate collective were in face-to-face groups. This is particularly remark-
behavior in ways that enhance (or detract from) the qual- able in light of the fact that the online groups were com-
ity of coordination and collaboration. These bottom-up municating only via text chat and could not even see
and top-down aspects of groups both interact and com- each other’s nonverbal expressions. This suggests that
bine to produce collective intelligence. We now discuss even though the RME test is based on visual cues in
each in turn. faces, it must also be predictive of a broader range of
interpersonal skills that are useful even when people
Bottom-up compositional features cannot see each other’s faces. Since members of the
online groups did not know who else was in their group,
enabling collective intelligence it is unlikely that knowledge of team members’ gender
Previously, when intelligence was examined at all in changed participants’ behavior.
groups, it was analyzed as a function of the individual Another aspect of group composition that has been
intelligence of the group members. Research found that related to c is the level of diversity in the group. In gen-
groups whose members had higher average individual eral, groups performing creative or innovative tasks often
intelligence were generally better able to adapt to a benefit from diversity, while groups performing tasks for
changing environment and to learn new information which efficiency is important are often impaired by diver-
(e.g., Ellis et al., 2003; LePine, 2005), but this effect was sity (Williams & O’Reilly, 1998). Cognitive diversity,
not consistently strong in the laboratory, and it was even including thinking styles and perspectives (Kozhevnikov,
weaker in field settings (Devine & Philips, 2001). Evans, & Kosslyn, 2014), is of particular relevance to
422 Woolley et al.

collective intelligence, as it relates directly to group mem- in which one or two people dominated the activity were,
bers’ ability to communicate with each another. in general, less collectively intelligent than those in
In a recent study (Aggarwal, Woolley, Chabris, & which the activity was more equally spread among
Malone, 2015), we found a curvilinear, inverted U-shaped group members.
relationship between cognitive-style diversity and collec- Conceptually, these findings seem reasonable, since
tive intelligence. In other words, groups that were mod- groups in which people communicate more and partici-
erately diverse in cognitive styles did better than those pate more equally are more likely to be able to take
that were very similar in cognitive styles and also those advantage of the full knowledge and skills of all their
that were very different. This suggests that groups whose members. But, in contradiction to the mainstream litera-
members are too similar to each other lack the variety of ture on team performance, we have also found (Engel
perspectives and skills needed to perform well on a vari- et  al., 2014; Kim et  al., 2015; Woolley et  al., 2010) that
ety of tasks. But at the same time, groups whose mem- collective intelligence is not predicted by several other
bers are too different have difficulties communicating factors that previous research suggested might be predic-
and coordinating effectively (Aggarwal & Woolley, tive of well-functioning groups, including group satisfac-
2013a). So, an intermediate level of cognitive diversity tion (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003), social cohesiveness
appears to be best for enhancing collective intelligence (Stokes, 1983), and psychological safety (i.e., the shared
(Aggarwal & Woolley, 2013b). belief that it is safe for the team to take interpersonal
Taken together, these findings suggest that the indi- risks; Edmondson, 1999). This suggests that collective
vidual skills most critical for collective intelligence are intelligence is something distinct from a metric of rela-
those that enhance the ability of group members to col- tionship quality in groups.
laborate effectively or that enrich the collaboration by Taken together, the existing studies of collective intel-
bringing a sufficient diversity of perspectives. ligence suggest that bottom-up, compositional features of
a group combine with top-down interactional processes
to affect the emergence of collective intelligence. But
Top-down interaction processes more research is needed to understand these interac-
In addition to the basic ingredients of member skills, col- tional processes in more detail, creating a ripe area for
lective intelligence is enabled by the group interactions future work.
that combine those skills to good effect. But we know
less, so far, about these interaction processes than about What Does Collective Intelligence
the skills that go into them. In fact, there is an interesting
analogy between individual and collective intelligence in
this regard. Psychologists discovered the statistical factor As we saw above, collective intelligence predicts a
(g) for individual intelligence long before they knew group’s performance on other—more complex—tasks
what actual processes in the brain were associated with that were not used in calculating the original collective-
this factor, and even today, we still have only a limited intelligence score (Woolley et  al., 2010). Perhaps even
understanding of the neural processes that allow some more interestingly, there is a striking parallel between
people to be more intelligent than others (Gray, Chabris, how intelligence is related to learning in individuals and
& Braver, 2003). Similarly, with collective intelligence, we groups. It is well established that more intelligent indi-
know some things about the group processes of collec- viduals learn new material more quickly ( Jensen, 1989).
tively intelligent groups, but we are still far from a com- Recent studies have suggested a similar relationship
plete process theory that explains why some groups are between collective intelligence and learning for groups
more intelligent than others. as well.
The most important things we have observed so far In one study (Aggarwal & Woolley, 2014), collective
are that more collectively intelligent groups communi- intelligence was measured in teams of students in a man-
cate more and participate more equally than other agement course, and then their performance on a series
groups. For instance, we have found that collective intel- of group tests was tracked over the next 2 months. The
ligence was significantly predicted by the total amounts teams that were highly collectively intelligent earned sig-
of spoken communication in face-to-face groups and of nificantly higher scores on their group assignments even
written communication in online groups (Engel et  al., though their members did not do any better on the indi-
2014). We also found that collective intelligence was pre- vidual assignments. Furthermore, the highly collectively
dicted by how equally communication and work contri- intelligent teams exhibited steady improvement in perfor-
bution were distributed among group members in both mance across the series of tests, suggesting that the teams
face-to-face and online groups (Engel et al., 2014; Kim got better at retaining information collectively and apply-
et al., 2015; Woolley et al., 2010). In other words, groups ing it to their assignments over time.
Collective Intelligence and Group Performance 423

In a second study, we measured groups’ collective intelligence, providing many fertile areas for ongoing
intelligence and then asked them to play a behavioral- research.
economics game called the minimum-effort tacit coordi-
nation game (Aggarwal et  al., 2015). In this game, the Recommended Reading
group members each chose from among a set of options. Bear, J. B., & Woolley, A. W. (2011). The role of gender in team
They could not communicate about which options they collaboration and performance. Interdisciplinary Science
were choosing, but their payoff was determined by a Reviews, 36, 146–53. A brief review of the effects of gender
combination of what they individually chose and what composition on team processes.
the other group members chose. Groups that did well at Larson, J. R. (2010). (See References). A more extensive review
anticipating what other members in their group would of the conditions that elicit synergistic gains in teams.
choose, and tacitly coordinated their choices accordingly, Woolley, A. W., Aggarwal, I., & Malone, T. W. (2015). Collective
earned more. We found that a group’s collective intelli- intelligence in teams and organizations. In T. W. Malone &
M. S. Bernstein (Eds.), Collective intelligence. Cambridge,
gence was highly predictive of its improvement over the
MA: MIT Press. A comprehensive but accessible overview
10 rounds of the game and its earnings overall. of the features of teams and organizations that affect col-
lective intelligence.
Conclusions Woolley, A. W., Chabris, C. F., Pentland, A., Hashmi, N., &
Malone, T. W. (2010). (See References). Provides more
Taken together, the research described here demonstrates information on the original study of collective intelligence
the existence of a measurable collective intelligence in in teams.
groups that is analogous to general intelligence in indi-
viduals. This collective intelligence emerges from a com- Acknowledgments
bination of bottom-up and top-down processes within We wish to thank our collaborators, including David Engel,
groups and predicts future performance and learning in Christopher Chabris, Lisa Jing, and Nada Hashmi, along with
a wide range of environments. many research assistants at Carnegie Mellon University and MIT
Just as the concept of individual intelligence gave us for their efforts and contributions to the work described.
tools for better understanding education, job perfor-
mance, and many other aspects of life, we suspect that Declaration of Conflicting Interests
the concept of collective intelligence may be helpful for The MIT Center for Collective Intelligence has received spon-
understanding many aspects of group performance. It sorship funding from Cisco Systems, Inc.
may, for instance, help researchers study group phenom-
ena by providing better ways of controlling for the differ- Funding
ences among teams when studying the effects of
The work described in this article was made possible by finan-
particular treatments. cial support from the National Science Foundation (Grants IIS-
But much remains to be understood about collective 0963285, ACI-1322254, and IIS-0963451), the U.S. Army
intelligence. For instance, what are the basic processes of Research Office (Grants 56692-MA and 64079-NS), and Cisco
group interaction that lead some groups to be more col- Systems, Inc., through their sponsorship of the MIT Center for
lectively intelligent than others? How stable is collective Collective Intelligence.
intelligence over time?
One particularly important area for future research that References
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