Working groups are apparently more effective when group members take account of their colleagues’ state of mind. This emotional factor is just as valid for the remote communication that has become more widespread due to digital technology.

Identifying emotions, both face-to-face and remotely, is crucial to Collective Intelligence

If we can say that one person is more intelligent than another, can the same be said of groups of people? Yes, argued researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in their first paper on the subject in 2010 entitled ‘Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups’. The MIT team showed evidence that the group members’ ability to collaborate strongly correlates with what they called ‘collective intelligence’. Moreover, a crucial finding of their research was that good collaboration is also correlated with empathy, i.e. with “the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking” and other similar factors, says the paper. So far so good. But what happens when a working group is communicating through remote channels? Apparently, the ingredients for successful collaboration are exactly the same. Empathy-based collective intelligence can be replicated online, new research has found.

Collective intelligence greater than the sum of individual intelligences

The same MIT team has just carried out a new experiment, described in a paper entitled ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes or Reading between the Lines? Theory of Mind Predicts Collective Intelligence Equally Well Online and Face-To-Face’. This time they extend their analysis to the use of digital channels. Some 68 groups were given the same tasks as in the first experiment, with one exception: half the groups were in direct physical contact, the other half worked remotely using the collaborative online platforms Skype (video chat) and Google Drive (file storage and synchronisation). The experiment revealed that despite the absence of direct physical contact, those groups still demonstrated a form of collective intelligence. The results of the experiment were very similar for those whose members were working face-to-face and those in virtual contact. In order to observe the analytical capability of the different groups, the researchers asked participants to take the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ (RME) test, which required them to ‘read’ the mental states of others from looking at their eyes.

State of mind factor still vital in the digital world

The results of the RME tests correlate with people’s ability to work successfully as a group. Good RME results reveal a feature of human cognitive development known as a ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM) – our ability to reason about the mental states of others. Accordingly, the ToM-based RME tests proved to be a strong indicator of ‘collective intelligence’ within a group, even when group members are not physically in the same place. The RME not only measures people’s ability to decode emotion, it also measures our capacity to ‘read between the lines’ – hence the ease with which groups interacting largely through written text demonstrate just as much collective intelligence as groups working face-to-face. A comparison of the two experiments carried out four years apart reveals that working online has no adverse effects whatsoever on the effectiveness of a working group where productivity depends on the ability to communicate and understand state of mind.  So it would appear vital for companies to bring these key principles to the attention of their collaborative teams, especially as intelligent use of digital tools can certainly help to enhance team performance and productivity.


By Anthéa Delpuech