Is collaboration making us smarter?

This sounds about right:

Back to our puzzle about reasoning: why does it lead to better performance in the context of group discussion? To provide a proximal explanation, we would have to look inside people’s head: what happens there that make them better at solving problems when they discuss with others than on their own? In future posts, I will suggest such an explanation. But for now let’s focus on the ultimate question. Whatever the psychological mechanisms are that make people better reasoners in group discussion, why do they work that way?

To answer the ultimate question, we can turn to a suggestion made by Dan Sperber in a couple of papers from the early noughties. His idea, in a nutshell, is that reasoning evolved for argumentation: so that we can convince others and to examine the arguments they offer us. Reasoning would be adapted to work in dialogue, when people exchange arguments, and not within the confines of a solitary mind. Just as human lungs work better in normal atmospheric conditions because they are designed to work in these conditions, reasoning works better in group discussion because it is designed to work in such a context.

The last time I wrote a single-authored paper was back in 2000; everything since then has been collaborative work. I’m not sure how much longer this will continue.

The functional aspects of collaboration are obvious: the wider range of collective expertise, the complementing abilities and skills, the sharing of work. There is the camaraderie between coworkers if the chemistry is right. Of course, there are also collaborators who can’t agree on anything, insist that the paper be written their way or no way, or at the other extreme, who won’t answer email for months.

All other things being equal, though, I’ve noticed that my own thought processes seem to work better when I’m collaborating with someone else. This is not just a matter of receiving feedback from collaborators and benefitting from their contributions. It’s more subtle than that. It’s that, somehow, my own brain shifts gears sometimes and finds more effective ways of thinking about the subject when it knows that I’ll be discussing it with an actual live person soon. I have no idea what this does to my IQ – I actually don’t even know my IQ, never took the test – but the effect is noticeable enough, consistent, and can’t be attributed to anything else that I can think of.

I’d be very interested to know what everyone else thinks.


Filed under mathematics: general

6 responses to “Is collaboration making us smarter?

  1. I believe that collaboration definitely makes us smarter, especially when we work with people with different sets of skills and ideas than our own. This allows us to learn quickly and also to produce better mathematics than we could on our own. Another aspect of collaborative work that I find very valuable is that it can serve as a mechanism for training graduate students

  2. Ron

    Anticipated collaboration is like writing a paper, you not only hone to the key points, you anticipate the critiques, and, above all, you fashion your thoughts.

  3. Michael Lacey

    At a conference at the Fields, a distinguished mathematician mentioned a result by 4 authors, paused, and remarked that the sociology of mathematics has changed. Indeed, it has, and the whole sociological implications are interesting.

    Dropbox has changed my professional life. The paper 1103.5229 was completed in 4 months, start to finish, and contains many slick arguments in it.

    To my mind, it is a better paper for having 7 authors on it. The contribution of some was focused like a laser on particular sections; each section got its own subset focusing on it, leading to a very fine and polished end result. This to me is where collaboration really pays off — in complementary expertise.

    Tools are important too, and Dropbox is a very good tool. There are plenty
    of other tools, but something like Dropbox, working on everyone’s system in a transparent way is good for wide use.

  4. Pingback: Weekly Picks « — the Blog

  5. Michael Lacey

    On topic, the arxiv is twenty years old, as of Aug 14, 1991.
    Paul Ginsparg, the arxiv founder, put some remarks about the history and thoughts about the future at where else, the arxiv .

  6. “It’s more subtle than that. It’s that, somehow, my own brain shifts gears sometimes and finds more effective ways of thinking about the subject when it knows that I’ll be discussing it with an actual live person soon.”

    upon reading that part of your post, oddly enough i suddenly thought of teaching.

    regardless of the topic, there’s something about knowing something well enough to handle it on your own, and knowing something well enough to explain it to someone else.