• Robb G. Best

When Two Heads Aren't Better Than One


In case you were wondering whether or not there is, in fact, a word for everything, allow me to tell you that polycephany, the condition of having multiple heads, is most common in snakes and tortoises. Humans, of course, tend towards a more singular arrangement.

The foundational concept behind the business meeting is that bringing together more minds will ensure better results, that the ideas generated will be lit by the total of all intelligence in the room. In the abstract, it sounds reasonable, but in our own lives, we have reason to doubt.

Consider how many people used to sneer at the heliocentric model of the solar system, or germ theory, or universal suffrage. Consider the Titanic. Consider the continued inexplicable success of Two and a Half Men. Whether we're talking scientific communities of yore or the modern viewing public, large groups of people can have a pretty mixed track record.

So do the benefits of collaboration hold up to public scrutiny?

Julia A. Minson and Jennifer S. Mueller of the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania put it to the test. Their findings were reported in a Psychological Science article called "The Cost of Collaboration." It turns out that this mental teamwork is indeed useful, but Minson and Mueller had one important caution. When two or more people problem-solve together, they tend to get overconfident.

When we reach universal agreement, we are far more likely to believe we've hit the right answer, to vigorously defend that position, and to refuse to re-evaluate.

And herein lies the rub: during a collaborative session, if the team encounters outside information that doesn't line up with the feel of the room, that information is frequently dismissed. Once that momentum has built, minds close.

What's interesting is that human emotion, that warm feeling of safety in numbers, can trump the sum of those analytical brains.

The result? Group activity and discussion are likely to generate more ideas, but that titular cost is that those same people are more likely to find themselves in an echo chamber, and less likely to seek out—or even listen—to dissenting thoughts.

It's enough to make you think twice about the phrase "a committee of one."

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