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Neuroscience: our relationship with intelligence

C Factor: a collective IQ

Pierre-Marie Lledo, Research Director at CNRS, Head of Department at Institut Pasteur, and member of the European Academy of Sciences
On February 18th, 2021 |
4 min reading time
Pierre-Marie Lledo
Pierre-Marie Lledo
Research Director at CNRS, Head of Department at Institut Pasteur, and member of the European Academy of Sciences
Key takeaways
  • For Prof. Pierre-Marie Lledo, the idea that a group of people is less intelligent than the sum of its parts is incorrect.
  • As such, researchers have created a “C factor” which can be used to evaluate collective intelligence based on the individual IQ model.
  • This “C factor” takes into account more than just the IQ of an individual: it is enhanced by improving interactions and diversifying profiles within the group.
  • Prof. Lledo says that companies should promote collective intelligence and replace rigid hierarchical structures by a more flexible mode of operation.

Today, com­pa­nies are con­front­ed with increas­ing eco­nom­ic chal­lenges and dis­rup­tive changes. Faced with ris­ing unpre­dictabil­i­ty and com­plex­i­ty, most fight to sur­vive by reduc­ing pro­duc­tion costs or try­ing to obtain new mar­ket shares. Yet, most lead­ers are still ill-pre­pared to han­dle the unknown.

In this con­text, how can they then give mean­ing to the often-para­dox­i­cal require­ments, expect­ed of them? The over­whelm­ing flood of mod­ern oxy­morons like “prof­itabil­i­ty” and “sus­tain­able devel­op­ment”, “val­ues” and “worth”, “open inno­va­tion” and “com­pet­i­tive­ness”, or even “social and envi­ron­men­tal respon­si­bil­i­ty” and the “gen­er­a­tion of wealth”? A gen­uine rev­o­lu­tion of the social archi­tec­ture pre­sid­ing over analy­sis, deci­sion-mak­ing and action is need­ed to offer new ways of effi­cient­ly resolv­ing these issues. 

In my opin­ion, we must estab­lish a true col­lab­o­ra­tive spir­it with­in com­pa­nies. To do so, new organ­i­sa­tion­al struc­tures should increase their depen­dence on col­lec­tive intel­li­gence. Because, as Euripi­des said, “none of us know what we all know, togeth­er” 1.

The era of pyra­mids is over

For stub­born indi­vid­u­als dis­in­clined to admit the impor­tance of the ben­e­fits of the col­lec­tive, the Covid-19 cri­sis pro­vides addi­tion­al evi­dence on the advan­tages of coop­er­a­tion. Around the world, epi­demi­ol­o­gists, doc­tors, researchers, and engi­neers, are work­ing togeth­er tire­less­ly to man­age the flow of data sur­round­ing the pan­dem­ic to mod­el the spread of the virus, pre­dict the impact of pos­si­ble inter­ven­tions or devel­op bio­med­ical solu­tions to this health issue.

Open-access and reusable codes were exchanged by lab­o­ra­to­ries across the globe. The world of research and inno­va­tion has under­gone an unprece­dent­ed fren­zy of col­lab­o­ra­tion and pro­duc­tion. In oth­er words, pyra­mi­dal organ­i­sa­tions that sub­sist here and there in deci­sion-mak­ing bod­ies ruled by a rela­tion­ship of sub­or­di­na­tion will soon be over. Nev­er­the­less, we must acknowl­edge that these ancient (and some­times inscrutable) dog­mat­ic pyra­mi­dal organ­i­sa­tion­al struc­tures forged on author­i­ta­tive argu­ments are very effi­cient in spe­cif­ic cir­cum­stances – when the envi­ron­ment in which they evolved remains stable.

How, then, do we incite col­lec­tive intelligence? 

By first object­ing to the idea that intel­li­gence dete­ri­o­rates as soon as we come togeth­er to think and decide. Some might believe that indi­vid­u­als are the only agents of intel­li­gence, where­as groups show stu­pid­i­ty. Let us remind them that the cog­ni­tive per­for­mance of an indi­vid­ual relies first and fore­most on the use of tools that are either sym­bol­ic (lan­guage, writ­ing, etc.) or mate­r­i­al (cal­cu­lat­ing and mea­sur­ing instru­ments, ener­gy, trans­porta­tion, etc.). Each and every one of us is gift­ed these tools by oth­er peo­ple through cul­ture and edu­ca­tion: we did not invent them ourselves.

In fact, most of the knowl­edge brought forth by those who pre­tend that intel­li­gence is pure­ly indi­vid­ual comes from the col­lec­tive. Indeed, this knowl­edge could not have been built or per­fect­ed with­out long chains of inter­gen­er­a­tional trans­mis­sion through fam­i­ly, school or media. Homo sapi­ens invent­ed the con­cept of “cumu­la­tive cul­tur­al evo­lu­tion”, the phe­nom­e­non by which knowl­edge is built and improved over time via social learn­ing and coop­er­a­tion. Today, we can mea­sure the ben­e­fits of this col­lec­tive way of think­ing through its deriv­a­tives: democ­ra­cy, com­merce, art, tech­nol­o­gy, or sci­ence 2.

From the indi­vid­ual to the group 

How can we ful­ly har­ness the resources of an indi­vid­ual – who inher­ent­ly lives and works in a group – to bring out a form of col­lec­tive intel­li­gence? First, col­lec­tive intel­li­gence refers to the cog­ni­tive skills of a soci­ety, a com­mu­ni­ty or a group and their abil­i­ty to adapt to change. 

This form of col­lec­tive think­ing, far from con­formism and stan­dard­i­s­a­tion which are oppo­si­tions of change, brings into exis­tence new cre­ations to enrich our her­itage, espe­cial­ly under the impulse of a sense of oblig­a­tion urg­ing us to enrich this lega­cy. Col­lec­tive intel­li­gence is only fer­tile when it struc­tures or con­ju­gates sin­gu­lar­i­ties, by facil­i­tat­ing dia­logue and active lis­ten­ing, cer­tain­ly not by elim­i­nat­ing dif­fer­ences, or worse yet, by silenc­ing dis­si­dents 3.

Final­ly, it should be not­ed that we must study a body of knowl­edge before we can enrich it. Knowl­edge of the past is the basis for invent­ing and build­ing a col­lec­tive future and for appre­ci­at­ing the degree of intel­li­gence of a human organ­i­sa­tion, whether it be a com­pa­ny, a gov­ern­ment, an admin­is­tra­tion or an asso­ci­a­tion. Mem­o­ry is the cor­ner­stone of col­lec­tive intelligence!

A col­lec­tive IQ? 

If we can mea­sure indi­vid­ual intel­li­gence in terms of per­for­mance at dif­fer­ent tasks, and thus derive an indi­vid­ual “intel­li­gence quo­tient” (the famous IQ), then shouldn’t we be able to assess the intel­li­gence of a group of indi­vid­u­als through its abil­i­ty to per­form col­lec­tive work? Researchers have thus designed a “C fac­tor” for col­lec­tive intel­li­gence that can be used to mea­sure group per­for­mance based on var­i­ous tasks 4.

No need to gath­er peo­ple with a high IQ to max­imise the col­lec­tive intel­li­gence of a group. What real­ly mat­ters is the diver­si­ty of social sen­si­tiv­i­ties, skill sets and edu­ca­tion­al back­grounds of its mem­bers, as well as the abil­i­ty to effi­cient­ly inter­act and to speak in an equi­table way dur­ing dis­cus­sions. In oth­er words, an intel­li­gent group is not a group made of intel­li­gent indi­vid­u­als. Rather, it con­sists of dif­fer­ent indi­vid­u­als inter­act­ing on the basis of equi­ty and reci­procity, dri­ven by shared moral val­ues. The authors con­clude: “it seems eas­i­er to increase the intel­li­gence of a group than that of an indi­vid­ual. Could we increase col­lec­tive intel­li­gence, for exam­ple through the use of bet­ter online col­lab­o­ra­tive tools?” 5.

Self-organ­is­ing com­mu­ni­ties have been at the heart of the “open-source” world, giv­ing rise to mas­sive projects such as Wikipedia or Lin­ux. Today, con­fronting the com­plex­i­ty of prob­lems with a diver­si­ty of skills is an obvi­ous course of action in prob­lem solv­ing on a glob­al scale and in inter­dis­ci­pli­nary con­texts. Cre­at­ing a bal­anced ratio of pow­er in the work envi­ron­ment will only be pos­si­ble by rebuild­ing the foun­da­tions of author­i­ty. As was the case, for exam­ple, when the fam­i­ly and house­hold struc­tures under­went changes in the ‘50s, some behav­iours nowa­days appear inap­pro­pri­ate in the pro­fes­sion­al world because they are detri­men­tal to the emer­gence of col­lec­tive intelligence.

I hope that these few lines will have con­vinced our read­ers on the need to estab­lish rela­tion­ships based on equi­ty, reci­procity or the sense of oblig­a­tion in com­pa­nies, but also in schools and in all human com­mu­ni­ties – but a few of the key fac­tors favour­ing the expres­sion of a col­lec­tive IQ.

1Read­ers who wish to learn the foun­da­tions of col­lec­tive intel­li­gence can read the work of Jean-François Noubel, Intel­li­gence Col­lec­tive, la révo­lu­tion invis­i­ble, 2004, The Tran​si​tion​er​.org. For Pierre Lévy, the French philoso­pher, col­lec­tive intel­li­gence can be defined as « intel­li­gence spread every­where, con­stant­ly val­ued, coor­di­nat­ed in real time, lead­ing to an effi­cient mobi­liza­tion of skills »
2To increase their knowl­edge of the emer­gence of col­lec­tive intel­li­gence, read­ers can turn to the excel­lent work of Pierre Lévy ‘L’in­tel­li­gence col­lec­tive. Pour une anthro­polo­gie du cybere­space’, Paris, La Décou­verte, 1994
3In 1675, New­ton already wrote: ‘If I have seen fur­ther it is by stand­ing on the shoul­ders of giants’
4Wool­ley et al. (2010). Evi­dence for a Col­lec­tive Intel­li­gence Fac­tor in the Per­for­mance of Human Groups. Sci­ence Vol. 330, Issue 6004, pp. 686–688
5For fur­ther infor­ma­tion, the read­er can refer to the work of Pierre Lévy, philoso­pher, soci­ol­o­gist, and researcher in the field of infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. On this theme from the same author, Cyberdé­moc­ra­tie. Essai de philoso­phie poli­tique. Paris : Édi­tions Odile Jacob, 2002. This philoso­pher sug­gests that a new form of col­lec­tive intel­li­gence, called net­worked col­lec­tive intel­li­gence, has emerged thanks to dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy


Pierre-Marie Lledo

Pierre-Marie Lledo

Research Director at CNRS, Head of Department at Institut Pasteur, and member of the European Academy of Sciences

Pierre-Marie Lledo’s research focuses on the adaptation and regeneration of neurons in the brain, and their interactions with the immune system. He is Research director at the CNRS, head of the Genes and Cognition laboratory, and director of the Perception and Memory unit and of Plasticity and Development of the Nervous System at the Pasteur Institute.

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