More Heads Are Better Than One

There are those individuals who claim to be able to work and think better when they are alone.

However, despite these claims, a recent research shows that more heads are better "if the task at hand is solving a logic problem."

In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (April issue, Vol. 90, No. 4 ), groups of 3-5 people came up with more competent solutions to math-based problems than the best individuals working solo.

The study

In their research, the authors used the following problem to test their hypothesis:

The letters A through J map to the numbers zero through nine, but not necessarily in that order. To determine which letter belongs to which number, the participants propose equations such as A+B. The researchers respond by telling the students the answer in letter form.

If, for instance, the students give the equation A+B, and get B as the answer, they can infer that A equals zero. To solve the problem completely, the students must discover the number-identity for each of the letters within 10 equations, though they are asked to use as few as possible.

The researchers had 760 college students do the test. The students were randomly assigned to work individually, in pairs or in groups of 3 to 5.

Individuals

The students who worked by themselves used the 2-letter substitution strategy. The students who used this strategy, aware that B = 1, may propose the equation B+B to determine which letter equals 2

Groups

Groups of three or more used a more sophisticated solution. Groups used the multiple-letter substitution wherein, knowing that B=1, they may ask for the answer to the equation B+BB+BBB+BBBB (or 1+11+111+1111) and receive the answer BCDE. They would then know that BCDE = 1234, thus they are able to map out 3 letters using just one equation.

The result

Those who worked in groups of 3 to 5 were able to answer the test in only 6 equations. Pairs were less efficient, using an average 7.3 equations to map out the test. The researchers then looked at performance of the top students among randomly selected sets of two, three, four or five. The tops students, working alone, averaged 6.5 equations to come up with the solution.

This means that, if these top individuals worked in groups, they would have done even better, suggests Patrick R. Laughlin, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Laughlin further adds that "the groups put together the partial understanding of the problem that each person had… it is not that some genius in the group solved the problems while the others watched."