Deference Reduces Group Intelligence

NPR has a story about group intelligence:

Anita Woolley, an assistant professor of organizational behavior and theory, has been studying what it means to say a group is “intelligent.” So she created teams of two to five people, drawn from 700 volunteers, and asked the teams to solve various kinds of problems.

“We had some brainstorming tasks, where the idea is to get as many ideas and as creative ideas as possible,” she said. The teams performed other tasks where there was only one right answer, and still others where the teams had to come up with innovative solutions to a problem.

Here’s an excerpt from one group’s conversation:

Participant 1 (male): The problem is that we have to decide whether this star basketball player should be kept on the team despite cheating on the exam, right?
Participant 2 (female): Yeah, I think they’re trying to see how we’ll punish him.
Participant 3 (female): It looks like keeping a player like that would mean violating school policies.
Participant 1: Yeah, I would keep him out of the next game, unless it’s a playoff. At the very minimum.
Participant 2: Yeah, I think that’s the best option. He deserves at least that.

The participants in this group took turns discussing the problem, coming up with various angles and issues.

Another group attacked the same problem differently:

Participant 1 (male): I say he should not be allowed to play.
Participant 2 (female): He should not be allowed to play for the semester, at least.
Participant 3 (female): Well …
Participant 1: 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 just stupid.

No one else in the second group 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 that to do well, a group needed to consider multiple perspectives.

“In groups where the conversation was more evenly distributed, where you had better participation — and more equal participation among all of the group members — the groups were more collectively intelligent,” Woolley says.

Not only was it annoying, but groups where one person dominated tended not to come up with as balanced and thoughtful a result — it wasn’t 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.

The upshot is that deference makes groups less intelligent, even if the person who’s being deferred to is smart. There’s some question of whether we should call this intelligence, exactly, but it’s a related concept that’s likely to have lots of implications if you look for them. Non-deference tended to go up as the number of women in the group increased:

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.

So there you have it. Defer at your own risk. (And accept the deference of others at the risk of both yourself and your institution.)

In related news, do you want to get rich by betting against discrimination? Here’s an idea: bet on companies with female CEOs. Male analysts tend to underestimate them, and it’s likely that male traders will also underestimate them!

The standard neoclassical approach doesn’t fully allow for what I think most people really believe discrimination to be: a mistake. With mistake-based discrimination, imagine that you go to evaluate the future profitability of a firm. One of the things that you are going to look at is the quality of the CEO. You probably have a mental picture of a tall white guy in a pinstripe suit, and if the CEO doesn’t fit that image you may have a less positive opinion of that firm. If that is true, firms headed by women should systematically outperform the market’s expectations. The first paper was somewhat inconclusive; it wasn’t clear whether the firm overall outperformed expectations. Alok Kumar and I are working on a follow-up paper that uses quarterly earnings announcements, which gives us a lot of observations. It turns out that female-headed firms beat analysts’ expectations each quarter much more frequently than similar male-headed firms. If you look at which analysts are getting things wrong, it’s disproportionately male analysts who have inaccurately low expectations of female-headed firms.

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