The importance of social relationships in science

Oct 7, 2010   //   by Anna Zaniewski   //   Physics Education  //  No Comments

As I evolve in my scientific career, I  understand more and more the incredible importance of group work.  Progress in science depends upon others- the notion of the isolated scientist making breakthroughs with his/her abilities alone, though popularized by mainstream media  (see, for example, Iron Man) is inconsistent with how science actually progresses.  Scientists are, first and importantly, humans.  One of the distinguishing characteristics of our species is our capacity for cooperation and socialization.  This characteristic gives us vast power for taping the collective intelligence of our species to understand nature and engineer technology.  This goes beyond summing up individual contributions.  It is my experience that we are most powerful when working together on a problem.   This experience is corroborated by a recent study published in Science: “Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups”

In this study, researchers presented groups of subjects with a variety of cognitive tasks.  The aim of this study was to understand to what extent the collective intelligence of groups is determined by the abilities of individuals within the group, and what other factors contribute to collective intelligence.  What they found was that groups have a general intelligence similar to the way that individuals do- that is, if a group is good at solving one kind of difficult puzzle, they also tend to be good at solving a different kind of puzzle.  Furthermore, the intelligence of the groups was not strongly correlated to the average or maximum intelligence of the group members.

This is a fascinating result: groups have an intelligence that does not come from the individual intelligence of its members but from something else.

So what does determine group intelligence?  The researchers found that social sensitivity, equality in speaking turns and the presence of females in the group were factors that positively correlated with collective intelligence.   Since the women in their study scored higher on social sensitivity tests (consistent with previous results), the factors they cite are correlated.

In science education, the focus is on content and problem solving knowledge- and there is no question that these are important.  But given the importance of group work in science and the undeniable fact that scientists are people too- and thus subject to human psychology- more emphasis must be placed on learning how to work together.

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