Collective intelligence is the body of knowledge that grows out of a group. When groups of people work together, they create intelligence that cannot exist on an individual level. Making decisions as a group, forming a consensus, getting ideas from different sources, and motivating people through competition are all components of collective intelligence.

Thomas Malone, the Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at MIT and the founding director at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, coined the term. In his book, “The Future of Work,” Malone has theorized that businesses of the future will look very different from today’s organizations because of collective information gathering. Artificial intelligence involving computers and other types of automation have produced collective intelligence as different types of groups connect with one another to produce a body of knowledge.

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Almost Everything Falls Under the Collective Umbrella

In an interview with The Edge, Malone notes that virtually everything that he and other individuals do today falls under the auspices of collective intelligence. What we consider intelligence doesn’t just simply arise in everyone’s brains as it also encompasses the interactions among individuals. Malone defines the term as people acting together in a way that appears to be intelligent. The opposite, namely groups acting together in what may, for lack of a better phrase appear to be stupid, also occurs. Groups that qualify for the collective term include families, companies, countries, armies and the like. Collective behavior, whether intelligent or stupid, has existed for a long time.

Sources of Collective Intelligence

Many different theories exist regarding where collective intelligence comes from and where it resides. The Co-Intelligence Institute notes that intelligence in a group dynamic involves many different approaches and perspectives and can include a number of factors. These can include:

  • Experiencing the intelligence of groups of people as a larger body of intelligence that operates through individuals
  • The minds that comprise intelligence collective influence the whole and those who access its common body of knowledge
  • An emergent property of a social system that includes information gathering, communication systems, learning systems, and similar cultural patterns
  • Is a group phenomenon in which the intelligence of each individual merges into a larger form of intelligence

Intelligence as a Capacity and as Strategic Information

The ability to adapt and solve problems, such as problem-solving, reasoning, learning, prediction, etc. are all ascribed to intelligence as a collective capacity. Other components of intelligence as a capacity include perception, reasoning and logic, analysis, intuition, experience, consciousness and awareness, reflection, creation, and invention, among others.

Strategically using facts that have been gathered is another crucial component of intelligence. Think of the intelligence that countries gather as an example. The information gathered acts as a basis for crucial decision making and affects society as a whole. While intelligence professionals only make up a small percentage of society at large, such individuals exist in societies on man different levels and contribute to the larger sense of what intelligence is all about.

 

Ways Group Intelligence Emerges in Society

Answering, “What is collective intelligence?” requires some understanding of social groups. There are several ways that group intelligence can emerge in society. Collaboration is a leading way. This involves a group of people working together on one project with a common goal in mind. Several scientists in one research lab could fall under the method of collaboration. With collaboration, there is typically a leader for the group, such as a principal investigator leading the lab. Collective efforts are another way intelligence can emerge. This usually involves people working separately from each other, but not competing. It is less efficient, and there is no central organization to the effort. Competition is another way a collection of intelligence can be assembled. With this method, different groups of people with the same goal stake out their own paths to figuring out the problem. Each group has a leader, and there is competition for scarce resources, such as funding.

A Shift of Knowledge

Collective learning can only take place when an individual is willing to share what they learned. In this sense, group intelligence is a shift of information from individuals to a group. The members of the group change over time and membership is always in a state of flux. A group might be people in a neighborhood, people who work for a particular company, or members of a professional organization. When people leave the group, they take the intelligence with them to the next group they join. People from outside groups can bring in new intelligence to the organization. Member attrition keeps ways of thinking fresh.

How Politics and Equity Affect Intelligence Sharing Across Society

The collective sharing of information in a society is often at odds with political power. In an authoritarian regime, group activities of the citizens are often discouraged. They are seen as a possible threat to authority. Coordination or unionization as a form of power is also against the ideals of communism. In democratic political systems, there is often a reluctance to share information that could give a competitor an edge or an advantage. In order for group intelligence to work, it has to be equally accessible by everyone in society. Economic disparities, such as an inability to pay for internet service, have a considerable impact on access to group intelligence.

How Technology Fits Into Collective Intelligence

Technology plays an increasingly important part of group intelligence. Technology facilitates the development and maintenance of platforms where people can come together as a collective and exchange their information. The advanced technology available in smartphones allows a person to connect in traditional ways, such as through conversation. It also allows individuals to connect in large networks, such as through video conferencing apps, social media forums, websites with chat or forums, and more. Today’s smartphone is a single device that replaces multiple devices that used to be needed in order to gather a collection of information and share it with a group. A person no longer needs to have a landline phone, television, radio, daily newspaper, magazine subscriptions, or printed books in order to obtain and share knowledge with others. A caveat is that the technology for social intelligence is not free, and some people do not have the means to obtain the technology in order to participate in the sharing of information.

Role of the Internet in Collective Intelligence

Group intelligence has created some of the most widely-used platforms on the internet. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that anyone can add to or edit. A team of moderators and approved senior editors verifies information on a 24/7 basis. Online question and answer forums allow people to share and exchange information. Even scientists share their research online, allowing other researchers to access bits of genetic code or information on how to perform a particular test. Google is perhaps the most well-known collective intelligence platform on the internet.

Online Sources of Group Intelligence

Applications of Collective Learning

There are many applications of collective learning. These include:

  • Opinion aggregation: An example is online product reviewing
  • Idea collection: This focuses on crowd-sourcing of solutions, designs or ideas
  • Point estimates: This aggregates individual estimates from a group
  • Market judgment: This relates to predicting demand, prices, and values of goods and services
  • Political predictions: This determines a collective opinion on an issue or candidate

Level of Trust from Group Intelligence

Not everyone will trust the information they get from a group. The trustworthiness of the group depends on its history, its members, and its sources of data. Within any group, its members form networks of trust. Any individual is more likely to trust the information they get if it is from a person they know in real life. People are also more likely to trust information that is in line with what they already believe. It reiterates or reinforces their existing opinion, and they may develop a confirmation bias or avoid conflicting sources of information. Any information that is not in agreement with their pre-determined beliefs may be ignored, argued, belittled, or berated. Within a group, subject matter experts may not always be given top priority as a trusted source of data. This is most often the case for a geographic-based group, such as people in a civic association or people who all live in the same town. These disagreements cause a breakdown of the sharing of knowledge.

Intelligence Is Subjective

What seems intelligent to one group might seem downright stupid to another group. Group intelligence is a subjective assessment of information. According to The Edge, artificial intelligence is playing a growing role in the evaluation of group intelligence. Because the artificial intelligence algorithms do not have an emotional stake or any subjectivity, they may have a better method of evaluating what is collective intelligence. For example, Google’s algorithms scour the internet in search of answers to questions. The algorithms assemble the collected answers and return links to searchers who type a question into the search bar. This makes Google seem intelligent, even though it is relying on the filtered answers of individuals. In true group intelligence, all of the information is available, even the information that could be wrong, outdated or disingenuous.

The idea of intelligence helps people understand the meaning of what it is to be human. Realizing intelligence is primarily a collective phenomenon helps people understand the meaning of collective intelligence and what it means to live in society as a whole.