The Usefulness of Group Thinking

Born To Be Grouped

“Almost all great artists and scientists travelled in rarefied circles of people, who shaped and melded their ideas. William Wordsworth’s work was sparked by his association with the other romantic poets; the Impressionist painters worked as a group; Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque formed the Cubists; and Charles Darwin hung out with influential geologist Charles Lyell and Charles Babbage, the father of the computer. The social circles in which these artists and scientists moved seemed to foster the free-flowing ideas from which great movements and discoveries sprang.” [I]

There are many other examples. In my book about Adam Smith,[J] I noted that he was close to three other remarkable minds: philosopher David Hume, pioneering geologist James Hutton and noted chemist and physicist Joseph Black. Black was also an influence on James Watt (of steam engine fame). And one of their associates was John Robison, the first populariser of the notion of a Masonic conspiracy causing the French Revolution. (Jews were added later.)

It’s not just the world of ideas. Almost all large businesses have a Board of Directors, which can pool experience and probably do better than any one individual alone. Theorists of capitalism hype heroic individuals, but the reality is ‘groupthink’, mostly of a positive sort, at least for the survival and growth of the business.

All sorts of thinking can benefit:

“When people get together to debate and argue against each other, they can counterbalance the biased reasoning that each individual brings to the table.

“As a result, group thinking can produce some surprisingly smart results, surpassing the efforts of the irrational individuals. In one convincing study, psychologists … looked at performance in the Wason selection test – a simple card game based on logical deduction. When thinking about this task on their own, less than 10 per cent of people got the right answer. When groups of 5 or 6 people tackled it, however, 75 per cent of the groups eventually succeeded. Crucially for the argumentative theory, this was not simply down to smart people imposing the correct answer on the rest of the group: even groups whose members had all previously failed the test were able to come to the correct solution by formulating ideas and revising them in light of criticism…

“Given that the skills of the individual members do not seem to predict a group’s overall performance, what other factors determine whether it sinks or swims? … a series of studies designed to measure a group’s ‘collective intelligence’, in much the same way an individual’s general intelligence can be measured by IQ tests. The tasks ranged from solving visual puzzles and brainstorming ideas to negotiating how to distribute scarce resources.

“She concluded that a group’s performance bears little relation to the average or maximum intelligence of the individuals in the group. Instead, collective intelligence is determined by the way the group argues – those who scored best on her tests allowed each person to play a part in the conversations. The best groups also tended to include members who were more sensitive to the moods and feelings of other people. Groups with more women, in particular, outperformed the others – perhaps because women tend to be more sensitive to social cues…

“Such results are exactly what you might expect from a species that evolved not to think individually, but to argue in groups.” [K]

It’s part of life: losing your borders, becoming part of a group. It is done by many mammals and some other creatures, though less than you’d think. Detailed studies of flocks of birds and shoals of fishes showed them to be surprisingly disconnected: each member thinks it is useful to be part of a group, but no more. We humans have what’s probably the highest developed group identity. Much the biggest assembly of individuals among primates. Other animals with larger groups seem either to have no individual identity (like ants) or to be a mere mob with no notion of mutual care.

We also have what may be unique, the ability to reflect on membership of a group and maybe change it. We still have the problem that people can think just of their own group and deny human sympathy to others. Fascism and other forms of aggressive nationalism and racism do that. But we can also reject it.

[I] Genius networks: Link to a more creative social circle From issue 2866 of New Scientist magazine, page 37-39

[J] Adam Smith: Wealth without Nations

[K] The argumentative ape: Why we’re wired to persuade, by Dan Jones. From issue 2866 of New Scientist magazine, page 32-36.

From Newsnotes, June-July 2012.

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