Wednesday, December 22, 2010

group intelligence, hierarchy, and the history of society

Found via 3QD, the Boston Globe reports on new research showing how an individual's intelligence is partly contingent on the group it's in.

A particularly noteworthy paragraph:
More broadly, groups and the complex social structure of human interactions may help account for how people got “smart” in the first place. The dramatic changes in science, culture, art, language, technology, and music over the past thousand years are not due to the development of brand-new mental or physical capacities. Instead, it is a particular kind of group benefit, Goldstone argues, in which human progress bootstraps upon itself through a collective cultural memory. Knowledge ratchets up in successive generations without our having to reinvent technologies, discover laws of nature anew, or risk tasting all the mushrooms in the forest.
Old institutionalists and of course Marxists have known this for a long time. It is a richly historical idea. It may also improve the scientific foundation of some modern-day studies of team production and other ways of decentralizing authority in the workplace.

Interestingly, the article ends with this passage:
“There’s been a tendency to focus on the negative, the mob psychology, the idea that people can bring out the worst in each other,” Goldstone said. “There’s just as much evidence that people can bring out the best in each other.”
Depending on your view of "good" and "bad", this can become a very important statement. The implication of the above paragraph is that successful groups are founded upon the promotion of efficient individual behavior. And so my question to the reader is -- does capitalism bring out the best in people, fostering its own success?

Perhaps one would retaliate to this question by saying that hierarchies are different from groups. Essentially, it may be the case that groups are more efficient but capitalism is built on a different network structure. I would agree with this argument, but I don't see it reflected in these studies. For one, the study finds that group unity is unimportant -- high levels of group technology are behind the efficiency results.

Of course, Gordon, Edwards, and Reich have argued that in America, the development of firm technology was not due to efficiency considerations. But I suppose another, simpler, test of the issue would require examining the efficiency of different types of groups (hierarchical, egalitarian, and so on). I wonder if this has been done before?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting research, I like this part a lot:
    "And they also found that the proportion of women in the group was a predictor of collective intelligence — a factor they believe was likely influenced by women’s generally superior social sensitivity" :)