Don’t let other people get in the way of a good idea

Julian Baggini talks about a phenomenon, here, which I imagine many people likely to read this have encountered, of forming substantive and functional relationships through the internet. By this I don’t mean on-line social forums like Friendster, Myspace and hi5 (although I’m not knocking them either – they seem fun, if a bit of a time drain, and if I were single I’m sure it would be an outlet for a bit of wishful thinking: a venezualan supermodel-jetski racer! And we’re connected through bobs mate tonys mate steves acquaintance tim. It’s onnnnnn. ). Dr B is remarking on the work and productive partnerships that can arise when people have never met, and seem all to the good for that. As he puts it

… online collaborations can be supremely efficient. The qualities I identified in my co-author, Peter S Fosl, which made him a good collaborator, were all manifest in our email communications and in his work. He was knowledgeable, clear, flexible, enthusiastic about communicating ideas and responsive to suggestions and advice. What more did I need to know? Whether he liked his lattes skinny?

I can cheerfully second this, as it’s precisely how my involvement with Mind Hacks began. I only knew Tom from his website: assured, stylish and highly informative. When, after some purely pixel-based interaction, he offered me the chance to get involved in a project he was in, I jumped at the chance. If I had known that he is, like me, a guy who wears t-shirts and eats at Thai veggy buffets, I would have recoiled in horror. Well, I wouldn’t, but for the job at hand (contributing to a neuroscience fun-guide) person-to-person contact was unneccessary for me to make the judgments. Having said that, if a professional relationship was the main, formal game, then meeting in person translates to those bonus levels on Mario games that are just as vital as the game itself.

While writing this, I began to consider whether this argument holds for well-defined tasks like writing book sections according to a specified format, but not for open-ended development, like (say) free-forming the future of a fresh or neonatal project. Then I realised: hey, someone’s done some experimental work on this- and it’s me!

I exaggerate for gut-wrenchingly comic effect, of course. Brainstorming research from the 50’s onwards was shown that groups underperform relative to the sum of what they produce individually, both at producing ideas 1 and retrieving memory content 2, and don’t seem to produce emergent new memories. A common explanation for this is social loafing 3 the term coined for the free riding that occurs when responsibility is diffused amongst a variety of agents. A related issue is production blocking, where the delays people face before speaking may lead to them to forget their ideas, or supress them because they seem less relevant or original later. Often good intentions of facilitators of group discussions may compound this, by enforcing turn-taking or other systems that might in the interests of balance interfere with fluidity and hence output. (Of course, output may not be the most valued measure, and in some cases, such as a focus group it might make sense to privilege balance over prolificity.)

This dim view of mass brainstorming is tempered by findings that its negative effect attenuates when a dyad (group of two) is made up of good friends or partners 4; the explanation offered is that individuals have a ‘cognitive style’ that people can become familiar with, so when one is on a roll the other doesn’t interject, or can pick up and develop vague wavings into something genuinely useful. And if you send your mind a’thinking down this merry alley, the level of performance should be due not merely to the interactors but the interaction.

As the mind goes, so the research proposals follow, and a group of researchers 5 successfully eliminated the output shortfall produced by group colloboration by mediating their interaction through a computer-based file-sharing procedure. Through this participants were offered questions to which they could append comments; they could then view other comments and append comments to that. Production blocking was eliminated because one can immediately respond with ideas without interruption, and even though some degree of social loafing could still have been operating to impair performance, groups did better than the sum of the efforts of their members working alone, and increasingly so for larger groups. The ‘me’ bit of all this was some undergrad work I carried out extending this effect to collaborative memory, rather than ideas, and showing that two heads can be better than one, if they interact in this fashion. Not my idea, I was under the tutelage of John McCarthy, who I haven’t seen for ages but whose site confirms he is still doing fun stuff, which is actually pretty Mindhackish. Hmmm. Maychance I’ll give him a buzz sometime….

With good reason, other people have picked up the ball with this work and run with it.This paper, for example, details a computer environment in which people can contribute to solving or exploring questions, in a more sophisticated manner. And in a sense, we are all already converts to this perspective, no? Who can doubt that, for all the noise in amongst the signal, that the interated and interconnected debate you can find in a blog comment thread allows for the screening of useful ideas in a way that a face-to-face argument would rarely do? Putting aside the availability of such variety of viewpoints and information that the internet provides, there is a good case that it’s developing in such a way to structurally promote the flourishing of new ideas in a way that has never been universally achievable before.

Clearly I’m not bringing up anything new here, and I think Eldan,Tom and Matt would have a lot more to say about this, which I would love. I just felt like mapping out a geneology of the research that lines up with these changes in our information and interaction environment.

1 Lamm, H., Trommsdorff, G.(1973). Group versus individual performance on tasks requiring ideational proficiency (brainstorming): A review. European-Journal-of-Social-Psychology, 3(4), 361-388.

2 PR Meudell, P.R., Hitch, G.J., Kirby, P. (1992). Are two heads better than one? Experimental investigations of the social facilitation of memory. Applied Cognitive Psychology.

3 Steiner, I.D. (1972). Group process and productivity. Academic Press, New York.

4 Wegner,D.M., Erber, R., Raymond,P.(1991). Transactive memory in close relationships. Journal-of-Personality-and-Social-Psychology, 61(6), 923-929

5 Valacich,J.S., Dennis,A.R., Connolly, T.(1994). Idea generation in computer-based groups: A new ending to an old story. Organizational-Behavior-and-Human-Decision-Processes, 57(3), 448-467

2 Replies to “Don’t let other people get in the way of a good idea”

  1. Great stuff.

    As I remember the Wegner reference contains a cool experiment where couples were asked to learn lists of words, either with their long-term partners or swopped-around with someone else’s partner. The pairs learnt in silence and were then tested on how many words they recalled. Pairs which contained two matched partners (ie a couple who had been together with each other for years, rather than just having met) managed to recall more words – the idea being that during learning they were able to tacitly assign responsibility for learning different words on the list because they had a strong implicit understanding of the other person’s cognitive style.

    Is that right? I’m sure you’re far more on top of the literature than i am.

    Anyway, if it is right, it touches on something dear to my heart which is variety, and using the connectivity of the internet to allow people to create and support their niche, rather than for everyone to add a little bit to the same work. So if internet enabled protocols are one way to avoid social loafing in idea generation (structure/diversity in time), then niches are another (structure/diversity in specialisation niche)?

    Just thinking out loud here…

    And, thanks – i don’t think i’ve ever been called stylish before 🙂


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