Is There a Downside to Human Connection?

Overly-connected groups may stifle innovation, new experiments suggest.
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Overly-connected groups may stifle innovation, new experiments suggest.
(Photo: sophiadphotography/Flickr)

(Photo: sophiadphotography/Flickr)

If ever there was a time when one person could singlehandedly create the Next Big Thing, it's long gone. Now, collaboration and connection is king, which on the surface makes sense—the more ideas we can share with each other, the faster we'll arrive at something important. Except, new experiments suggest, that intuition is wrong: Having everyone's ideas on the table all at once can actually stifle innovation.

At issue is how human beings learn from each other, or, rather, how many people we can learn from, write Arizona State University researchers Maxime Derex and Robert Boyd in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In principle, the more people we interact with, the more we know, and the better prepared we are to tackle difficult problems, like, say, finding a vaccine for a dangerous disease. It's certainly true that most technological innovation these days is the result of recycling and re-combining old ideas, hinting at the possibility that simply accumulating more ideas would help people innovate. But how does that work out in practice?

Being too connected could lead to a kind of cultural lock-in, where societies are oblivious to the existence of other ideas that could improve their fate.

To find out, Derex and Boyd had 144 students from the University of Montpelier sit down at a computer to solve a hypothetical problem: Using six active ingredients, find a cure for a virus. Derex and Boyd had set this as a complex problem, where finding the most effective treatments required stumbling on two intermediate discoveries, labeled A and B.

Although each person worked independently, they were arranged in groups of six. In some of those groups, participants could see the ideas everyone else had come up with and how successful those ideas were at combatting the virus. In other groups, participants could only see one other person's ideas at a time—so, for example, Bob and Carol might be paired up for a while to share ideas, then switch so that Bob was paired with Alice, and Carol with Ted. The question is, would fully or partially connected groups create more effective treatments?

Early on, fully connected groups fared a bit better than partially connected ones, but they eventually stalled, while partially connected groups kept improving. The reason, Derex and Boyd discovered, was that fully connected groups were too quick to converge on promising solutions—as soon as someone discovered treatment A, for example, everyone put their energy into improving on that idea. Meanwhile, partially connected groups produced more diverse ideas, precisely because they couldn't see what everyone else was doing—with four people unaware that treatment A exists, they're mentally free to keep searching for other ideas. Indeed, 58.3 percent of the partially connected teams found both intermediate treatments, A and B, while none of the fully connected teams did.

In other words, being too connected could lead to a kind of cultural lock-in, where societies find something that works OK and stick with it, oblivious to the existence of other ideas that could improve their fate. Connection isn't everything; the pattern of connection matters too.

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Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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