Is reasoning done best in groups? Or: And we thought stereotype threat was bad.

This  idea that we reason better in groups has received recent attention because of the Argumentative Theory. Thus,

People mostly have a problem with the confirmation bias when they reason on their own, when no one is there to argue against their point of view. What has been observed is that often times, when people reason on their own, they’re unable to arrive at a good solution, at a good belief, or to make a good decision because they will only confirm their initial intuition.
On the other hand, when people are able to discuss their ideas with other people who disagree with them, then the confirmation biases of the different participants will balance each other out, and the group will be able to focus on the best solution. Thus, reasoning works much better in groups. When people reason on their own, it’s very likely that they are going to go down a wrong path. But when they’re actually able to reason together, they are much more likely to reach a correct solution.

The thought, which surely has some appeal, is that human reasoning has features that defeat one’s getting to a correct solution.  Confirmation bias is an example.  That is, we generally sort out evidence to find what shows we’ve been right.  Unfortunately, though, the idea that groups provide a solution may itself have a problem.

Recent work by Read Montague’s group suggests that in competitive groups, some people end up doing less well on cognitive tasks even when their IQ scores are the same as better functioning members.

Research led by scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute found that small-group dynamics – such as jury deliberations, collective bargaining sessions, and cocktail parties – can alter the expression of IQ in some susceptible people. “You may joke about how committee meetings make you feel brain dead, but our findings suggest that they may make you act brain dead as well,” said Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, who led the study. .

“We started with individuals who were matched for their IQ,” said Montague. “Yet when we placed them in small groups, ranked their performance on cognitive tasks against their peers, and broadcast those rankings to them, we saw dramatic drops in the ability of some study subjects to solve problems. The social feedback had a significant effect.”

“Our study highlights the unexpected and dramatic consequences even subtle social signals in group settings may have on individual cognitive functioning,” said lead author Kenneth Kishida, a research scientist with the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “And, through neuroimaging, we were able to document the very strong neural responses that those social cues can elicit.” …

There seem to have been at least two very different reactions on the part of the involved researchers.  One response is this:

We don’t know how much these effects are present in real-world settings,” Kishida said. “But given the potentially harmful effects of social-status assignments and the correlation with specific neural signals, future research should be devoted to what, exactly, society is selecting for in competitive learning and workplace environments. By placing an emphasis on competition, for example, are we missing a large segment of the talent pool? Further brain imaging research may also offer avenues for developing strategies for people who are susceptible to these kinds of social pressures.”

It looks to me as though Kishida thinks the experiments show us that competitive grouping may cost us in that we may lose a significant portion of the talented population.  But Quartz (see below) appears to be saying that who is in the talented population depends on who can perform well in the social situations.  Of course, I’m going here just by how he was quoted by a journalist, so we might be tentative about conclusions.

“This study tells us the idea that IQ is something we can reliably measure in isolation without considering how it interacts with social context is essentially flawed,” said coauthor Steven Quartz, a professor of philosophy in the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory of Caltech. “Furthermore, this suggests that the idea of a division between social and cognitive processing in the brain is really pretty artificial. The two deeply interact with each other.”

One remarkable aspect of the work is that it looks as though the number of women who are adversely affected is significantly higher than that of men.

In my experience, women often enough get the not so subtle look.  It used to be as bad as “O, isn’t it cute that you are trying to have some confused thought.” Now it is for me more likely to be “What idiot thing does this old woman have to say?”  Sometimes it can be quite explicit, as when a young man said after I delivered an invited talk, “I hope you don’t think your little point affects anything Block has to say.”  It has always interested me that these sorts of things can affect my performance.  Its as though one acts in accord with others expectations.  And I think there is some evidence that that is right, but the current research addresses a specific kind of setting very common at least in our version of academia.  The article indicated has a quite detailed picture of the mechanisms.  And I’m wondering whether a xanax or two might be helpful.  Perhaps in that five minute break between talk and questions, one could pop a pill, or have a very quick martini.  Any one want to write up a grant proposal on that?


Thanks to fp!

7 thoughts on “Is reasoning done best in groups? Or: And we thought stereotype threat was bad.

  1. I would imagine that introspective people do not reason well in group settings, if only because they generally feel uncomfortable among others, with certain rare exceptions.

  2. I agree that group settings may not always be the best outlets for introverted people, but I think that environment would still yield better results. Having group communication where ideas can be synthesized would seem to work better for research given that everyone involved has the same intentions / general focus (or the xanax/martini).

  3. SW, I’m not sure what makes women more vulnerable, but I’m not sure it is shyness. It’s important, and I probably haven’t made that clear, that it is not just being in a group that dumbs down those who are affected. It’s getting the negative feedback.

    HS, I think a similar point might be made in reference to your comments. Groups surely can be better, but some kinds of group interactions adversely affect the ability of some of its members to contribute intelligently.

  4. I meant “introversion”, not “introspection” above. Sorry.

    In any case, introversion is not the same thing as shyness. I’m extremely introverted, but I’m not shy.

    Maybe this article on introversion can help.

    I would suspect that introverts, of whatever gender, tend to give more weight to or are more sensitive to negative feedback than extroverts.

    Women, as a gross generalization, seem to be more people oriented than men and that may be why in many cases they are more sensitive to negative feedback.

    Lots of men don’t seem to see others: their world is structured by tasks, projects, money, not by other people while very few women are that way, although they do exist.

  5. I suspect the difference may be not simply between “individual” and (generic) “group” contexts, but between exchanges in which one is “at home” culturally and socially, and exchanges in which one is not so much “at home.” I’m recalling Lugones’ observations about playfulness, for example. In a lab study in the US (surrounded by Anglo “guys”), she might well *seem* entirely withdrawn and unengaged, or perhaps starkly awkward in participation. Yet certain Latina gatherings might enable plenty of fluent give-and-take interplay.

    We may not be able to furnish discussion settings that draw out the very best in all our students (because of institutional student demographics, for example), but we can be sensitive to conversational dynamics.

    Different kinds of social attunement may make it *seem* that some people just “are” sensitive to negative feedback while others just “aren’t” (and perhaps that’s true), but it could be that some people are well-tuned to very “low-volume” negative feedback gestures (so that louder opposition shuts things down), while others quite simply “don’t hear” opposition unless it’s pitched loudly and forcefully.

    Think of how social “space” works in Japan vs. Argentina (for example): people in both places register “too far” and “too close” in conversation, but the fulcrum is differently placed. So in encounters with one another, it will seem one of them is an approacher while the other is an avoider.

    (I’ve certainly had that experience in a relationship: Person A pauses and adjusts to even the slightest facial expression, while Person B perhaps really *does* care about Person A’s experience, but it doesn’t get on their perceptual radar until it’s fairly dramatic. The result is that Person B comes across like a steamroller, and yet seems bewildered to be told, later, that it was terribly uncomfortable for A.)

  6. elf, thanks for your thoughtful comments. one problem is that there really aren’t rules for these complex social situations. One thing to say, though, is that by encouraging the attack/counter-attack model, you will diminish actually not just the performance, but also the thought processes of some section.

    There are, as you point out, large differences in sensitivity to such factors. We know some of the neurophysiology behind it. For example, von economo (sp?) cells in the anterior cingulate cortex tend to fire quickly when we are causing discomfort in others, and we vary in our possession of them, with people on the autism spectrum having a low level. John Allman has done fascinating research in this area, and it’s on his CalTech web page.

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