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Research Shows Online Teams Are Influenced by Same Factors as Groups That Communicate in Person

Study supports Tepper School professor's groundbreaking work in "collective intelligence."

by Mark Burd-Carnegie Mellon University News Office
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Anita WoolleyAnita WoolleyCarnegie Mellon UniversityHuman interactions and office teamwork are increasingly taking place through online communication channels. And just as with face-to-face teams, organizations can greatly benefit from the ability to predict online group performance. 

Building on her groundbreaking research on "collective intelligence," a term she helped coin to describe a measure of the general effectiveness of a group on a wide range of tasks, Anita Woolley (right), assistant professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, has conducted a new study that demonstrates the same key factors that influence the collective intelligence in face-to-face teams also apply to online groups. The study was published by PLOS ONE
"Our previous research was able to identify factors that correlate with collective intelligence," Woolley said. "For instance, we found that having a lot of smart people in a group does not necessarily make the group smarter. However, we also found a significant correlation between the individuals' ability to reason about the mental states of others — an ability called Theory of Mind — and the collective intelligence of the group."

One way Theory of Mind is measured is by a Reading of the Eyes test, in which participants read the mental states of others by looking at photos of their eyes. Woolley and her colleagues divided study participants into 68 distinct groups, some restricted to communicating only online and others allowed to communicate face-to-face. Individual participants were given a Theory of Mind test, and then the groups performed a series of tasks together to measure their collective intelligence.

"Our findings reveal that the same key factors predict collective intelligence in both face-to-face and online teams," Woolley said. "Theory of Mind abilities are just as important to group effectiveness in online environments as they are in office environments. We hope that this insight will give organizational managers a new tool in predicting the success of online teams." 

The study also mirrored findings from previous research that demonstrated collective intelligence was significantly correlated to the number of women in the group; a higher number of women raised the group's collective intelligence. There also is a negative correlation associated with the number of speaking turns by group members. Groups in which conversation was dominated by a few individuals scored lower in terms of collective intelligence, as opposed to groups with more vibrant discussions — whether these discussions took place in a room or online. 

The study, titled "Reading the mind in the eyes or reading between the lines? Theory of Mind predicts collective intelligence equally well online and face-to-face," is co-authored by Woolley and David Engel, postdoctoral associate at MIT; Lisa X. Jing, research assistant at MIT; Christopher F. Chabris, associate professor of psychology and co-director of the Neuroscience Program, Union College; and Thomas W. Malone, director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.