The Secret to Smart Groups: It's Women

A fleet of MIT studies finds that women are much better at knowing what their colleagues are really thinking. It's another reason to expect the gender wage gap to eventually flip.

A group of Indigenous women raise their fists as they sing during the opening session of the three-day Women's Convention at Cobo Center in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., October 27, 2017. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters)

The concept of "general intelligence"—the idea that people who are good at one mental task tend to be good at many others—was considered radical in 1904, when Charles Spearman proposed the theory of a "g factor." Today, however, it is among the most replicated findings in psychology. But whereas in 1904 the U.S. economy was a network of farms, mills, and artisans, today's economy is an office-based affair, where the most important g for many companies doesn't stand for general intelligence, but, rather, groups.

So, what makes groups smart? Is there any such thing as a "smart" group, or are groups just, well, clumps of smart people?

As a team of scientists from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Union College write in this Sunday's New York Times, research suggests that just as some individuals are smarter than others, some groups are smarter than others, across a range of tests and tasks. In other words, there is a "c factor" for collective intelligence. Teams that are successful at solving visual puzzles also tend to be good at brainstorming and beating computers in video games. The authors provide a nice summary of the characteristics of smart groups in their original study (not directly linked in the Times piece, but accessible on page 686 of Science, October 2010):

In two studies with 699 people, working in groups of two to five, we find converging evidence of a general collective intelligence factor that explains a group’s performance on a wide variety of tasks. This “c factor” is not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members but is correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.

That bolded sentence is hiding a lot of heavy conclusions in plain sight. First, neither the average intelligence of the group nor the smartest person in the group had much to do with the group's "c" factor. Just as great artists don't necessarily form great bands when they pool their talents, smart people don't automatically make smart groups.

Furthermore, the predictable troupe of buzzwords you would expect to correlate with successful groups—"cohesion," "motivation," and "satisfaction"—didn't have much to do with effective teams, either. Instead, the single most important element of smart groups, according to the researchers, was their "average social sensitivity." That is, the best groups were also the best at reading the non-verbal cues of their teammates. And, since women score higher on this metric of emotional intelligence, teams with more women tended to be better teams.

What the heck is average social sensitivity? It is, essentially, mind-reading. When a member of your team—Michelle, we'll call her—says "I guess Danny really does have the answer for everything," and you detect a hint of aggrieved irony in Michelle's statement, while further noting the simultaneous drop in Michelle's chin as she makes the comment, coinciding with a deflated air of preemptive surrender in Michelle's tone, and you begin to think, hmmm, maybe what Michelle is actually saying is that Danny is a know-it-all jerk?, you are detecting what scientists would call "non-verbal clues." In plain-speak, you are reading between the lines. Indeed, like reading, social sensitivity is a kind of literacy, and it turns out that women are naturally more fluent in the language of tone and faces than the other half of their species.

Women are better at reading the mind through the face even online, when they can't see their teammates' faces. In a follow-up study (the full paper, which again isn't linked in the Times piece, lives here), the scientists gave participants a "Reading the Mind in the Eyes," or RME, test, where they were asked to identify complex emotions (e.g., shame or curiosity, rather than sadness or joy) in pictures of other people's eyes. Then they divided participants into teams and had them perform a number of tests, like brainstorming and group Sudoku. Again, teams with more women, who scored higher on the RME test, performed the best across the tasks. From the paper:

The [RME] scores of group members were a strong predictor of how well the groups could perform a wide range of tasks together, even when participants were only collaborating online via text chat and could not see each other’s eyes or facial expressions at all.

Reading these studies and the Times piece, I could think of two obvious objections.

  • First: Isn't it possible that there are specific personality traits—like openness or empathy—that might make some men just as good as women at reading the minds of their teammates?
  • Second: Is it really true that smarter teammates have so little to do with smart groups?

The researchers answer the first question explicitly, with a no. "We found no significant correlation between a general factor of personality and collective intelligence or RME," they write. Mind-reading isn't a personality trait. It's a skill.

Second, the relationship between smart teammates and smart groups is complicated by the fact that groups are sometimes assigned problems that only require one person to solve. If you ask a team of highly emotionally sensitive people to solve a differential calculus problem, and none of them knows calculus, it's unlikely that they will come to grasp Taylor polynomials by looking deeply into each others' eyes and really, truly listening. When the problem can be solved by one really smart cookie (e.g.: who remembers calculus), it's nice to have a really smart cookie. If, however, the solution requires deep collaboration, EQ trumps IQ.

I found these studies eye-opening for two further reasons. First, there is a growing sense that the Internet can destroy interpersonal skills, kill our emotional intelligence, and turn us into warm-blooded versions of the very robots that we fear will one day take our jobs. But these studies suggest that the rules of empathy hold both on- and offline. Emotionally sensitive people are gifted at reading between the lines, whether the literal lines are brow wrinkles or text messages.

Second, if you take these findings seriously, they represent a third fork of evidence suggesting that the male-female gender wage gap will not only close but also invert. It would surprise me if, in a generation, women aren't earning more than men across many mainstream industries.

First, women earn the majority of bachelor's degrees, Master's degrees, and Ph.D's. The historical relationship between higher education and earnings is simple: Those who learn more earn more. This advantage will continue to enrich women in the labor force. Second, if you look at the direction of job growth, brawny, muscly jobs like construction and manufacturing are in structural decline, while the fastest growing jobs, both at the low-pay end and in the white-collar world, require softer skills where men have no physical advantage. Third, men might have innate disadvantages in collaborative work settings, like the emotional illiteracy alluded to in these studies.