Small groups collaborate better

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Small groups collaborate better

In the animal kingdom, birds band together to ward off predators, and honeybees work collectively to benefit the entire hive. Humans can collaborate too, at times, though this behavior is not completely understood.

In a new study, researchers explained how wider collaboration (in a company or wider society) is possible through people’s cross-membership in a number of smaller groups The as yet unpublished work was presented at the American Physical Society Meeting in Boston.

We already know that humans tend to cluster into what Alicia and I call “commonality groups”—political, religious, familial, professional and so forth—rather than being homogenously mixed. Group memberships affect our decisions to cooperate—or not—with others.  So, how does wider cooperation emerge under such circumstances?

What the researchers say: “Group memberships affect the structure of social interactions, determining to a large extent who meets with whom. They also set the context and frequency under which those interactions take place,” said the lead researcher. The team built upon the “evolutionary set theory” modeling framework that they introduced in 2009, which assumes that people belong to groups and largely interact only with others who are in the same groups.

But in reality, the new research notes, most people belong to a number of groups—work, family, church sports team etc. Each normally has a barrier to entry.

The researchers found that cooperation works best when they allow for the existence of “loners” in the population—people who, due to entry barriers, are temporarily not members of any group. Loners are essential, the lead researcher explained, “because they keep group sizes lower than they would have been without barriers to group entry.”

Smaller groups with cross-membership allow wider cooperation to thrive, while making the system more resilient, by limiting the destructive influence of a non-cooperator exploiting a group of cooperators. This work shows, the researchers claim reassuringly, that there may be hope for maintaining cooperation in our world.

So, what? Alicia and I developed our theory that humans collaborate better in small numbers and under circumstances where there is a lot of shared commonality. This was confirmed last year (see previous TRs) in a study of hunter-gatherer bands which, the researchers found, were composed of people who shared commonalities—taboos, beliefs, social customs etc.—rather than kin.

The new study also confirms the research of Oxford professor Robin Dunbar and his team which some years ago found that humans can only collaborate effectively in groups of no more than 150 people (see past TRs).

More recent research by ourselves, and others, has shown that High Performing Teams range from a minimum of 3 people to a maximum of 7. Below 3 there is not enough diversity of opinion and background and above 7 it becomes too unwieldy to be high performing.

What the new research shows is that company-wide, or even country-wide collaboration can happen through people being members of a number of small groups.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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