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How leaders can arise in small-group settings

While the “wisdom of the crowd” shapes the behavior of large groups of people, less is known about decision-making and how leaders emerge in small groups, writes Dr Bob Murray. Now, an international team of researchers has found how leaders arise in small groups.

For the study – which was published in The Royal Society Interface – the research team assembled several groups of five volunteers each to participate in a cognitive test of 10 consecutive rounds. The task involved estimating the number of dots displayed for just half a second on a large screen.

In each round, participants were asked to choose one from multiple answers using a custom-made clicker, without verbally communicating with one another.

Because the dots were visible for only an instant, group members, lacking the time to count them, had to venture a guess.

However, the experiments were structured so that participants could alter their answers based on the answers of others in their group: once all participants had chosen their initial answers, the screen – viewable by all – displayed the current answers of all members along with their past performance in selecting correct responses. Participants then had a 10-second window in which to change their responses based on those of the others in the group.

The researchers, analysing how participant responses evolved over the course of the experiment, found that individuals did not choose ones the majority chose, which happens in the wisdom of crowds.

Rather, they based their decision on how well each group member had performed previously. The researchers noticed an evolution of the network of interaction among the groups and the speed at which they reached decisions.

What the researchers say: “Individuals used social information – who got the most accurate answers – more and more over time. The more accurate the one with the most number of best guesses was, the more influence he or she had over participants’ choices,” said the lead researcher.

“Therefore, the relationship between participants’ performance and their social influence was reinforced, resulting in them becoming group leaders.”

The investigators noted that:

• Participants were influenced by social information in changing their answers. On average, participants changed answers to ones that nobody had selected only about 5 percent of the time.
• Participants were more likely to be copied by others if their performances were good, even if their answers differed from those of the group majority.

The lead author explained that the behavior of small groups is strikingly different from that of much larger gatherings of people.

“Where a large crowd would adopt simple majority rule, with increasing accuracy of performance over repeated interactions, small groups rely more on social information, and as a consequence, good performers emerge as group leaders,” he said.

“Historically, people have looked at social networks as equivalent to an anatomical network based on static ties between people. We are putting forward the idea that in small groups, networks evolve over time-based multiple accurate decisions,” the researchers said, adding that this process mimics how neural networks operate in the brain.

“Our approach is analogous to learning about neural circuits based on how they function in the brain, rather than how they are anatomically connected.”

So, what? The idea that groups function rather like neural connections is not new. What is new from this study is the insight into the way that high-performing individuals emerge as team leaders.

This process does not make the teams themselves high performing – the emergent leaders may not be particularly high performing, only high performing relative to the other members of the group.

The other interesting thing to note is that the speed of team decision-making increases as the leader emerges. His or her perceived expertise increases the confidence of the team.

This post was originally published on Dr Bob Murray’s blog.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain