National Science Foundation: Chabris 2013

Award Date: September 2013


CHRISTOPHER CHABRIS, associate professor of psychology, has been awarded a $3,600 grant from the National Science Foundation to support his work on a collaborative project with investigators from Carnegie Mellon University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology entitled, "VOSS: Collaborative Research: Is Larger Smarter? Investigating the Effect of Group Size on Collective Intelligence" (NSF Award ID ACI-1322214).  

From Wikipedia to Linux to scientific and business work-groups all over the world, both online and off-line groups are becoming a pervasive part of modern life. It is becoming increasingly important, therefore, to understand how to improve the performance of these groups. The proposed work will use a new measure of generalized group effectiveness -- called "collective intelligence" -- to help do this.


Building on previous work by the investigators, the project will first develop an online test for collective intelligence. Then it will compare the results of online and face-to-face groups taking this new test with previous results for groups taking an offline version of the test. This will help clarify the degree to which online and off-line groups differ in their general effectiveness on a wide range of different tasks. Next the project will use this test to systematically measure the collective intelligence of online groups that range in size from 2 to 20 people. This will lay the foundation for exploring whether larger online groups can take advantage of the increased resources that more people bring, without suffering as much from the process losses that usually accompany increased group size in face-to-face groups. Finally, the project will systematically measure the collective intelligence of online groups with varying proportions of women. In doing so, the project will also test one particularly promising explanation for a gender effect on group performance: that groups with more women are less interpersonally competitive, and that this lower intra-group competitiveness leads to higher collective intelligence.

While there have been decades of research on factors that affect the performance of groups, almost all these studies have each focused on a single task. Thus, strictly speaking, the lessons to be learned from this previous work are limited to the specific tasks studied. The work proposed here uses the perspective of collective intelligence to investigate, not just the ability of a group to perform a single task, but the group's general ability to perform a wide range of tasks. Since many real-world groups must cope with a wide range of problems, just such a perspective may be needed to systematically predict their performance. In addition, the approach developed here can provide a significant economy of effort in evaluating potential ways of improving online group effectiveness. Instead of testing interventions on many different specific tasks, researchers will be able to test the interventions once with this general measure, and then have some basis for predicting the effects of the intervention on many other tasks. By making an online test of collective intelligence available to other researchers, the project will help advance scientific practice in this area. More generally, by providing a firmer scientific foundation for measuring and improving the performance of groups, the project may help our society address many of its most important problems more effectively. For instance, with the right kinds of collaboration tools, online groups may be able to be much more effective than face-to-face groups, taking advantage of the simultaneous efforts of far more people without the coordination losses that usually occur in larger groups. And understanding the dynamics of gender diversity may help us to improve the collaboration of the groups in which both men and women work, by giving everyone's best ideas a better chance to be heard. And perhaps, someday, this will help create groups that are more collectively intelligent than any groups have ever been before.