Occasional breaks can make groups smarter

When it comes to solving certain kinds of tough problems, scientists know that two heads are only sometimes better than one. Working alone, individuals occasionally hit on the best answer — but they’re likely to come up with a lot of clunkers, too. Working together, groups have a higher average performance than individuals, but a lower likelihood of landing on an optimal solution.

New research by Questrom’s Jesse Shore, along with Harvard’s Ethan Bernstein and David Lazer, suggests that there is a way to get the best of both worlds. According to the team’s study, which was recently published in PNAS, simply integrating short breaks into problem-solving sessions improves both the average performance of the group and increases the likelihood of getting the best solution.

To investigate the issue, the team studied triads of participants attempting to solve a complicated mathematical puzzle known as the traveling salesperson problem. Participants worked to find the shortest route that included stops at 25 different locations. Individuals were placed into groups in one of three different conditions. They could see the attempted solutions of other group members all of the time, they could see them none of the time, or they could see them occasionally throughout the experiment.

Groups that intermittently saw the attempted solutions of others proved to have both the highest average performance and were also most likely to come up with the ideal solution. Shore speculates that people benefit from a powerful one-two punch: They learn from others’ work and also benefit from their own exploration. “It’s not that people are necessarily doing better work when they’re exploring on their own,” says Shore. “But they may be more likely to try something new. Then, when they are able to see others’ work, the group draws from a more diverse set of answers. They can pull good ideas from everyone.”

Shore says that the study has implications for the way we use always-on collaboration software, such as Slack and Google Docs. “In many of these [collaborative software tools], the goal seems to be to keep people constantly aware of what others are doing,” he says. “But the reality is that if you’re getting an alert every time something happens and you’re not taking the time to work separately and have your own independent thoughts, it may hurt the group’s overall ability to solve complex problems.”

Read the complete paper.

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