‘Swarm intelligence’ refers to how grouping can help solve cognitive problems and a study published in Animal Behaviour this week examined how this works in humans. Most companies work on the assumption that employing the strongest individuals will produce the best team, but theoretical studies have started to question this. One model has predicted that in some circumstances the diversity of performers will be more important than ability. If groups with more diversity of opinion outperform higher ability groups then this could have implications for evolutionary theory; it could help explain how a variety of personality traits are maintained in animal populations.
The study tested this theory by asking visitors at a public exhibition and guests at a university open day questions that tested their cognitive ability. They then used this data to look at the difference in performance at the individual and group level. From their results they concluded that individuals contribute to group performance regardless of their ability but only in certain contexts. Therefore, certain combinations of opinion are more compatible than others and could mean that optimal combinations of personality types are possible: a factor currently not taken into account by existing models of optimal group size.
The impact of ‘swarm intelligence’ research could resonate in fields as diverse as psychology, sociology and economics. For example, in economics it could help provide more accurate predictions concerning markets as well as the outcome of political elections.