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Friday, June 2, 2023

How Humans Think When They Think As Part of a Group

After several days conducting military drills off the coast of California, the USS Palau was headed home. The massive aircraft carrier, large enough to transport 25 helicopters, was steaming into San Diego Harbor at a brisk clip. Inside the pilothouse—located on the navigation bridge, two levels up from the flight deck—the mood was buoyant. Members of the crew would soon be disembarking and enjoying themselves on shore. Conversation turned to where they would go for dinner that night. Then, suddenly, the intercom erupted with the voice of the ship’s engineer.

“Bridge, Main Control,” he barked. “I am losing steam drum pressure. No apparent cause. I’m shutting my throttles.”

A junior officer, working under the supervision of the ship’s navigator, moved quickly to the intercom and spoke into it, acknowledging, “Shutting throttles, aye.” The navigator himself turned to the captain, seated on the port side of the pilothouse. “Captain, the engineer is losing steam on the boiler for no apparent cause,” he repeated.


Everyone present knew the message was urgent. Losing steam pressure effectively meant losing power throughout the ship. The consequences of this unexpected development soon made themselves evident. Just 40 seconds after the engineer’s report, the steam drum had emptied, and all steam-operated systems ground to a halt. A high-pitched alarm sounded for a few seconds; then the bridge fell eerily quiet, as the electric motors in the radars and other devices spun down and stopped.

But losing electrical power was not the full extent of the emergency. A lack of steam meant the crew had no ability to slow the ship’s rate of speed. The ship was moving too fast to drop anchor. The only way to reduce its momentum would have been to reverse the ship’s propeller—operated, of course, by steam. On top of that, loss of steam hobbled the crew’s ability to steer the ship, another consequence that soon became painfully evident. Gazing anxiously out over the bow of the ship, the navigator told the helmsman to turn the rudder to the right ten degrees. The helmsman spun the wheel, but to no effect.

“Sir, I have no helm, sir!” he exclaimed.

The helm did have a manual backup system: two men sweating in a compartment in the stern of the ship, exerting all their might to move the unyielding rudder even an inch. The navigator, still gazing out over the bow, whispered, “Come on, damn it, swing!” But the 17,000-ton ship sailed on—headed for the crowded San Diego Harbor, and now veering far off its original course.

Watching all of this unfold on that day in 1984 was Edwin Hutchins. Hutchins was a psychologist employed by the Naval Personnel Research and Development Center in San Diego. He had boarded the Palau as an observer conducting a study of the cognitive demands of ship navigation, taking notes and tape-recording conversations. Now the ship was roiled by a crisis—a “casualty,” in the crew’s lingo—and Hutchins was along for the ride.

From his corner of the pilothouse, Hutchins looked over at the crew’s leader. The captain, he noted, was acting calm, as if all this were routine. In fact, Hutchins knew, “the situation was anything but routine”: “The occasional cracking voice, a muttered curse, the removal of a jacket that revealed a perspiration-soaked shirt on this cool spring afternoon, told the real story: the Palau was not fully under control, and careers, and possibly lives, were in jeopardy.”

Hutchins was aboard the ship to study a phenomenon he calls “socially distributed cognition,” or the way people think with the minds of others. In a book that grew out of his experience on the Palau, Cognition in the Wild, he wrote that his goal was to “move the boundaries of the cognitive unit of analysis out beyond the skin of the individual person and treat the navigation team as a cognitive and computational system.” Such systems, Hutchins added, “may have interesting cognitive properties of their own.” Faced with a predicament that no single mind could resolve, the socially distributed cognition of the Palau’s crew was about to be put to the test.

Among the downstream effects of the steam-engine malfunction was the failure of the gyrocompass, the principal tool that the Palau’s navigation team relied upon. Without the gyrocompass, the team had to manually ascertain the position of the ship, relying on bearings taken from multiple landmarks on shore. And because the Palau’s position was constantly changing, the crew had to perform this calculation once every minute. The ship’s quartermaster chief, a man named Rick Richards, got down to work at the chart table in the pilothouse—but it soon became clear that the job was too much for one brain to handle. (“Richards,” like the names of all the sailors—as well as the name of their ship—is a pseudonym devised by Hutchins.)

At first, Hutchins observed, Richards reached for ways to spread the burden of the task across his own body and across the tools he had at hand. He “subvocally rehearsed” the numbers he was computing, repeating the digits under his breath—using his voice and his auditory sense to expand the capacity of his working memory. He traced the columns of numbers being added with his fingertip, using his hand to help keep track of the masses of information he was managing. With a pencil, he jotted down intermediate sums in the margin of the navigation chart, fixing in place a kind of “external memory,” in Hutchins' phrase. And he pulled out a calculator, using it to relieve his brain of the burden of carrying out mathematical operations. Still, laboring on his own, Richards began to fall behind. He recruited yet one more resource: the mental ability of his crewmate, Quartermaster Second Class John Silver. The addition of another mind created a new challenge, however: how to figure out, on the fly, the best way to divide up the complex and fast-paced task.

All the while, the ship kept moving, and now a new emergency arose: The Palau was bearing down on a sailboat, a small craft whose occupants were oblivious to the bigger ship’s dire condition. “Normally the Palau would have sounded five blasts with its enormous horn,” Hutchins noted. But the Palau’s whistle was a steam whistle, and without steam pressure it was mute. Onboard the ship was a small manual foghorn, “basically a bicycle pump with a reed and a bell,” in Hutchins’ description. A junior officer—the keeper of the deck log—was sent running to find the foghorn, take it out to the bow, and let it sound. Meanwhile, the captain gripped the microphone for the flight deck’s public-address system and spoke into it: “Sailboat crossing Palau’s bow, be advised that I have no power. You cross at your own risk. I have no power.”

By this time, the sailboat had disappeared under the Palau’s bow; only the tip of its sail was visible from the pilothouse. The crew braced for the impending collision. The keeper of the deck log reached the bow at last and let out five feeble honks, surely too late to do any good. But a few seconds later, the sailboat emerged, still sailing, from under the starboard bow—one casualty, at least, averted.

Back inside the pilothouse, Richards and Silver were still huddled over the chart table, struggling to apportion the task between them. According to Hutchins’ scrupulous observations, the pair made 32 attempts before they were able to establish a successful division of labor, handing the elements of the complex task back and forth between them and providing information to each other just as as it became needed. Once they hit on an effective routine—on try 33—the teammates settled into a rhythm, taking in new bearing data and churning out new position calculations. With their coordinated efforts, and those of the rest of the crew, the huge ship was guided to safety, guided on a roundabout route that circumvented the congestion of the harbor and allowed the huge ship to slow to a stop. “Twenty-five minutes after the engineering casualty and more than two miles from where the wild ride had begun, the Palau was brought to anchor at the intended location in ample water just outside the bounds of the navigation channel,” Hutchins reported. “The safe arrival of the Palau at anchor was due in large part to the exceptional seamanship of the bridge crew,” he continued. “But no single individual in the bridge acting alone—neither the captain nor the navigator nor the quartermaster chief supervising the navigation team—could have kept control of the ship and brought it safely to anchor.”

A psychologist on the lookout for “socially distributed cognition” could hardly have chanced upon a better example. Too often, however, we’re not alert to such instances of collective thought. Our culture and our institutions tend to fixate on the individual—on his uniqueness, his distinctiveness, his independence from others. In business and education, in public and private life, we emphasize individual competition over joint cooperation. We resist what we consider conformity (at least in its overt, organized form), and we look with suspicion on what we call “groupthink.”

In some measure, this wariness may be justified. Uncritical group thinking can lead to foolish and even disastrous decisions. But the limitations of excessive “cognitive individualism” are becoming increasingly clear as well. Individual cognition is simply not sufficient to meet the challenges of a world in which information is so abundant, expertise is so specialized, and issues are so complex. In this milieu, a single mind laboring on its own is at a distinct disadvantage in solving problems or generating new ideas. Something beyond solo thinking is required—the generation of a state that is entirely natural to us as a species, and yet one that has come to seem quite strange and exotic: the group mind.

How does a group of minds think as one? It can seem mysterious or even magical. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, intellectuals like the French physician Gustave Le Bon and the British psychologist William McDougall conceived a fascination with the way crowds of people seemed to have minds of their own. The group mind was believed to be powerful but also dangerous: primitive, irrational, incipiently violent. It was also assumed that the group was less intelligent than the individual. This conception of the group mind was hugely influential; its echoes linger today in our prevailing distrust and even disparagement of group thinking. But the field rested on shaky empirical foundations. Without a way to explain how the group mind operated, its theorists turned to vague, unscientific, and even supernatural speculation. Ultimately the entire field collapsed under its own imprecision and incoherence. The notion of a group mind “slipped ignominiously into the history of social psychology,” writes one observer. It was “banished from the realm of respectable scientific discourse,” notes another. Social scientists took as their near exclusive focus the individual, thinking and acting on his own.

But the serious study of the group mind is now staging a surprising comeback. It owes its resurgence to sheer necessity: contemporary conditions demand it. Knowledge is more abundant; expertise is more specialized; problems are more complex. The activation of the group mind—in which factual knowledge, skilled expertise, and mental effort are distributed across multiple individuals—is the only adequate response to these developments. As group thinking has become more imperative, interest has grown in learning how to do it well. At the same time, reimagined theories and novel investigative methods have granted researchers new insight into how the group mind actually operates, placing the field on a genuinely scientific footing.

Neither senseless nor supernatural, group thinking is a sophisticated human ability based on a few fundamental mechanisms. First, there’s synchrony: coordinating our actions, including our physical movements, so that they are like the actions of others. Second, there’s shared arousal: participating in a stimulating emotional or physical experience along with others. And third, there’s perspective-taking, in which the group takes turns seeing how the world looks through the eyes of one of its members. The extent to which these mechanisms are activated determines a group’s level of what psychologists call “entitativity”—or, in a catchier formulation, its “groupiness.” A sense of groupiness can be intentionally cultivated. The key lies in creating a certain kind of group experience: real-time encounters in which people act and feel together in close physical proximity.

Yet our schools and companies are increasingly doing just the opposite. Recent years have witnessed a trend—aided by technology, accelerated by the pandemic—in which students and employees encounter individual, asynchronous, atomized experiences, from personalized “playlists” of academic lessons to go-at-your-own-pace online training modules. Then we wonder why our groups don’t cohere, why group work is often frustrating and disappointing, and why thinking with groups doesn’t extend our intelligence. So much in our every-man-for-himself society conspires against the creation of a robust sense of “we.” Our emphasis on individual achievement, and our neglect of interpersonal cohesion, means that we are failing to reap the rich benefits of the group mind.

We can fix this by following three simple principles of groupiness. First, people who need to think together should train together—in person, at the same time. Research shows that teams that trained as a group collaborate more effectively, commit fewer errors, and perform at a higher level than teams made up of people who were trained separately. Training together can also reduce the “silo effect,” a common phenomenon in which coworkers fail to communicate or collaborate across different departments and disciplines. Yet training together is not the norm in many industries. In medicine, for example, health care providers representing various specialties—surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, pharmacists—must collaborate closely when caring for patients. But traditionally, their training occurs in isolation from one another, in different departments and even different institutions.

Some medical schools and hospitals are now experimenting with group training across disciplinary lines. The University of Minnesota has found an especially engaging way to do so: creating an “escape room.” In this activity (modeled on an adventure game), UMN students studying nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy, and social work, among other disciplines, are invited into a simulated hospital room. There they are given the case study of a fictional patient—for example: “A 55-year-old male with a past medical history of bipolar disorder and type I diabetes presents to the emergency room with diabetic ketoacidosis, triggered by a recent manic episode.” Acting under the pressure of a one-hour time limit, the students must work together to develop a discharge plan for the patient by solving a series of puzzles, making use of the objects and information available in the room—and drawing on the participants’ varied areas of expertise. The game is followed by a guided debriefing session in which students reflect on the challenges of collaborating across fields. The “interprofessional escape room” is now part of the formal curriculum for students studying the health sciences at the University of Minnesota; hospitals and medical schools located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Buffalo, New York; Tucson, Arizona; and Lubbock, Texas have introduced similar activities.

A second principle for generating groupiness would hold that people who need to think together should feel together—in person, at the same time. Laboratory research, as well as research conducted with survivors of battlefield conflicts and natural disasters, has found that emotionally distressing or physically painful events can act as a kind of “social glue” that bonds the people who experienced them together. But the emotions that unite a group need not be so harrowing. Studies have also determined that simply asking members to candidly share their thoughts and feelings with one another leads to improvements in group cohesion and performance.

The Energy Project, a training and consulting firm based in New York, holds a companywide “community meeting” every Wednesday. Each of the organization’s employees is asked a series of simple questions, starting with “How are you feeling?” “That’s a very different question than the standard ‘How are you?’ we all ask each other every day,” notes Tony Schwartz, the company’s founder and CEO. “When people stop and reflect, and then say, one at a time, how each of them are really feeling, it opens up a deeper level of dialogue.” At times, he recounts, his colleagues’ answers have been searching or even wrenching, reflecting a personal crisis or family tragedy. But even when responses are more run-of-the-mill, the members of his close-knit staff have shared an emotional experience with one another, one that is fleshed out by the remaining questions in the series: “What’s the most important thing you learned last week?” “What’s your goal for this week?” “What are you feeling most grateful for?”

The third and final mandate for eliciting groupiness is this: people who need to think together should engage in rituals together—in person, at the same time. For this purpose, a ritual can be any meaningful organized activity in which members of a group take part together. If the rituals involve synchronized movement or shared physiological arousal, all the better. Even so ordinary a ritual as sharing a meal can make a difference in how well a group thinks together. Lakshmi Balachandra, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College in Massachusetts, asked 132 MBA students to role-play executives negotiating a complex joint venture agreement between two companies. In the simulation she arranged, the greatest possible profits would be created by parties who were able to discern the other side’s preferences and then work collectively to maximize profits for the venture as a whole, rather than merely considering their own company’s interests. Balachandra found that participants who dined together while negotiating—at a restaurant, or over food brought into a conference room—generated 12 percent higher profits, on average, than those who bargained while not eating.

This effect may be due in part to synchrony. Balachandra notes that when we eat together, we end up mirroring one another’s movements: lifting the food to our mouths, chewing, swallowing. “This unconscious mimicking of each other may induce positive feelings towards both the other party and the matter under discussion,” she writes. Other research has found that the positive effect of shared meals on cooperation is heightened if participants dine “family style”—eating the same food, served from communal dishes. It may also be enhanced if very spicy entrees are on the menu, since consuming such food increases body temperature and perspiration, raises blood pressure, speeds up heart rate, and prompts the release of adrenaline, all hallmarks of physiological arousal. A group of Australian researchers reported greater economic cooperation among people who together had eaten bird’s eye chilies, a painfully hot pepper.

In addition to incorporating the now familiar factors of behavioral synchrony and physiological arousal, consuming food with others is in itself uniquely meaningful: our very survival depends on this elemental sharing of resources. “Eating together is a more intimate act than looking over an Excel spreadsheet together,” observes Kevin Kniffin, an assistant professor of management at Cornell University. “That intimacy spills back over into work.” In a study published in the journal Human Performance, Kniffin and his coauthors reported that teams of firefighters who eat their meals together perform better than firefighters who dine on their own. He believes that our focus on individual achievement—and individual rewards—leads us to overlook the performance-enhancing effects of group rituals. “Coworkers who eat together tend to perform at a higher level than their peers, yet cafeterias are often undervalued by companies,” he notes. And those tech companies that do offer luxurious cafeterias as a perk to their employees? The key may not be the freshness of the sushi or the deliciousness of the vegan grain bowls but whether the firm’s workers consume such delicacies together.

All of these approaches to generating groupiness are firmly grounded in our nature as embodied, situated, social beings; their effectiveness depends on people moving, talking, and working together, so closely that their brains and bodies fall into a joint rhythm. This marks a difference from notions such as “crowdsourcing” and the “hive mind,” which have enjoyed a sustained surge of popularity. In theory and in practice, these concepts are highly “brainbound": a bunch of disembodied minds bouncing ideas around, usually online. It’s an irony of our current moment: in order to manage the complexities of our modern world, what we need most are the ancient and visceral capacities of the group.

Excerpted from The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain by Annie Murphy Paul. Copyright © 2021 by Anne Paul. Available now from HMH Books & Media.

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