Collective/group intelligence?

A debated notion in intelligence research is whether there’s a general or ‘g’ factor capturing overall intellectual ability. What this means is if someone has a ‘high g’, they’re bright across the board: picture someone talented on a range of activities. Conversely, others argue that intelligence is specific to a given domain: think of that person who’s oh-so talented playing the cello, or speaking French, or at Maths, but not so good in other areas.

That debate continues, but recent research has looked to see if there’s such a thing as group or collective intelligence (a ‘c factor’): if a group of people are good at one thing, will they be predictably good at others? Kaleidoscope reports on a trial that tested this, and which says group intelligence is indeed a thing: having determined a group’s ‘c factor’ they were successfully able to predict their subsequent performance in different tasks. So, what predicts it – was it the group with the brightest single individual or the group with the highest average IQ?

Nope, neither of them. However, two things were relevant: groups with more dominant members had lower c factors, and those with more women in them had higher group intelligence. The authors propose social and emotional intelligence as helping groups perform, something undermined by dominant leaders and men – a lesson and reflection for many of us, I hope.

Which segues nicely to an editorial by Breedfelt at al in this month’s BJPsych on women and leadership in healthcare. It highlights the ‘leaky pipeline’ of more women than men entering undergraduate training, but the higher one rises – in clinical, academic, or managerial posts – the fewer and fewer women there are.

Fitting with the aforementioned piece on a ‘c factor’ it argues that equity is not ‘just’ about ‘doing the right thing’, it’s about unleashing talent and different ways of working and thinking, and it is authored by an impressive array of leading women in UK healthcare. A disclosure – it’s co-authored by the writer of this piece, and – a second disclosure – he is not a woman (despite whatever you may have heard), but my part in the piece was arguing that this isn’t a “woman’s issue”, equality is a societal issue – and y’all part of society, right?

Does love change how things feel?

Finally, and lowering the tone slightly. Last month Kaleidoscope quoted Bob Marley; this month it’s reduced to Def Leppard – “love bites, love bleeds, it’s bringing me to my knees”. However, there was a point beyond revealing the author’s poor taste in music, and here’s the pitch: does love actually change how things feel? I mean, really, not just in soppy songs and poetry and such and such (I revert to gender stereotypes for effect, but also to cover my embarrassment over the whole Def Leppard thing), but in hard-core-randomized-controlled-trial-science? The final piece in December’s Kaleidoscope reports on a study where participants were given painful stimuli through lasers (those scientists are mean mothers) whilst having their brain scanned. Then, various types of touch were applied to their arms, including gentle stroking from a romantic partner. The results showed this type of ‘affective touch’ – a lover’s touch - actually did reduce pain in the brain.

The results are the first of their kind in humans: they fit with earlier animal experiments looking at licking and grooming (behaviours yet to be tested in humans in a scanner). All of which makes me re-evaluate Def Leppard’s work: the quoted lyrics bewailed the pain felt at love’s ending – and thus a lack of affective touch – which makes me suspect they understood the neuroscience of the C-tactile spinal cord afferent pathway perfectly well.

This month's quiz

(All questions true or false; full answers – and source material - will be in December’s Kaleidoscope column in the BJPsych)

  1. A ‘C factor’ of a group’s collective intelligence is associated primarily with the mean IQ of that group.
  2. A meta-analysis of cannabis’ effects on pain has confirmed it decreases experimental pain intensity.
  3. Evaluation of data from the 300,000 sample UK Biobank has shown that subjectively feeling well has no impact on cardiovascular health.


  1. False, higher collective group intelligence is associated with having more women and fewer dominant individuals.
  2. False; it increases pain tolerance and reduces unpleasantness, but does not appear to impact upon the actual intensity of the stimulus.
  3. True; the finding was against prediction.
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