Friday, 3 February 2006

Why do we still believe in group brainstorming?

So you need some fresh, innovative ideas. What do you do? Get a group of your best thinkers together to bounce ideas of each other…? No, wrong answer. Time and again research has shown that people think of more new ideas on their own than they do in a group. The false belief that people are more creative in groups has been dubbed by psychologists the ‘illusion of group of productivity”. But why does this illusion persist?

Bernard Nijstad and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam argue it’s because when we’re in a group, other people are talking, the pressure isn’t always on us and so we’re less aware of all the times that we fail to think of a new idea. By contrast, when we’re working alone and we can’t think of anything, there’s no avoiding the fact that we’re failing.

To test their theory, they recruited hundreds of students and asked them, either on their own, or in differently sized groups, to think of as many ways as possible to boost tourism to Utrecht. Afterwards the students in groups reported feeling more satisfied with their performance, and feeling that they had experienced fewer failures to come up with new ideas, than did the students who’d worked alone.

In a second study, Nijstad’s team found further support for their theory by showing that the illusion of group productivity could be undermined if different members of a group had to think of ideas for different projects. In this case, the students’ satisfaction with their performance and their sense of how much they had failed to think of new ideas, resembled the experience of students who worked alone.

The researchers said “We suggest that working in a group may lead to a sense of continuous activity. This may provide group members with the idea that they are productive, because they feel that the group as a whole is making progress, even if they themselves are not contributing”.

Other possible reasons for why people think they work better in groups include ‘memory confusion’, the idea that after working in groups people subsequently mistake other people’s ideas for the own, and ‘social comparison’, the idea that in groups people are able to see how difficult everyone else has found it to come up with ideas too.
Nijstad, B.A., Stroebe, W. & Lodewijkx, H.F.M. (2006). The illusion of group productivity: A reduction of failures explanation. European Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 31-48.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to related research report (page 3 of 4):