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Anita Woolley on Collective Intelligence and Learning on the Edge

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Anita Woolley’s presentation on Collective Intelligence and AI in Teams provided a comprehensive overview of her research and its evolution over time. She began by contextualizing the increasing prevalence of teamwork in modern workplaces, noting that while organizations might strive for rationality in their structure, the reality is often more complex and emergent.  

Predictability of Collective Intelligence

Woolley and her colleagues developed a “group IQ test” consisting of various tasks, finding that some teams consistently performed well across different types of challenges. Importantly, the collective intelligence score proved to be a better predictor of future team performance than individual IQ scores or even the intelligence of the smartest team member. Woolley emphasized that collective intelligence is a significant predictor of a team’s ability to learn and adapt quickly. Studies have shown that teams characterized by high collective intelligence handle various tasks more effectively, demonstrating adaptability and improved performance over time. 

Essential Functions of Collective Intelligence


Gender Diversity: One of the key findings Woollley presented was the correlation between gender diversity and CI. Studies have shown that teams with a balanced gender mix, particularly those with a higher proportion of women, tend to exhibit enhanced collective intelligence. However, the benefits plateau or even diminish when the team becomes homogenously one gender. This suggests that a diverse gender composition fosters better communication and collaboration, essential components of CI. 

Cultural Diversity: Wooley also discussed the impact of cultural diversity on team performance. Specifically, she highlighted the benefits of having a mix of individualistic and collectivistic cultural backgrounds within a team. Her research indicates that teams with a majority of collectivistic members, but not exclusively so, achieve optimal CI. This mix promotes a balance between initiating actions and responding to others, facilitating effective communication and coordination. A recent paper under review elaborates on how these cultural differences translate into conversational engagement patterns that boost CI. 

Cognitive Diversity: The presentation further explored cognitive diversity, focusing on the varied thinking styles prevalent in different professional domains. Woolley illustrated that teams comprising members with diverse cognitive styles, such as those common in mathematically oriented professions and those in artistic or design-oriented fields, tend to be more collectively intelligent. Her research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, reveals that having at least moderately high cognitive diversity is crucial for achieving the highest levels of CI. Particularly notable is the finding that individuals who are cognitively versatile—possessing strengths in multiple cognitive styles—have a disproportionately positive impact on team CI. These individuals, though comprising only about 20% of the population, help achieve an optimal balance of cognitive diversity within teams. 

Synchrony and Collective Intelligence 

Woolley introduced the concept of synchrony as another vital element influencing CI. Synchrony, or the alignment of interactive behaviors among team members, manifests in various forms and significantly enhances CI. 

Facial and Vocal Synchrony: Her studies demonstrate that synchrony in facial expressions, especially in positive and negative affect, indicates that team members are attuned to the same environmental cues. Interestingly, this synchrony can occur even without visual access, suggesting a deeper level of cognitive alignment. Vocal synchrony, which Woolley argued provides more insight into internal states than facial expressions, also correlates with higher CI. Teams that exhibit greater vocal synchrony develop stronger collective intelligence, highlighting the importance of attuned communication. 

Impact of Video in Meetings: Woolley presented an intriguing finding regarding the use of video during meetings. Contrary to popular belief, having video on can sometimes disrupt vocal synchrony, as participants may become distracted by visual cues. Her research indicates that teams often achieve better synchrony without video, an insight that challenges common practices in remote work settings. 

Conversational Synchrony and Burstiness: Another form of synchrony Woolley discussed is conversational synchrony, which involves the flow and timing of dialogue within a team. Experiments introducing internal competition, such as electing and potentially changing leaders, demonstrated that increased competition and interruptions disrupt CI. Effective turn-taking and mutual attention are essential for maintaining high levels of CI. 

Woolley also introduced the concept of “burstiness” in communication. Bursty communication patterns, characterized by clustered, responsive interactions, are a hallmark of high CI teams. These patterns emerge in various communication forms, from email to face-to-face interactions, and indicate a high level of mutual responsiveness and engagement. 

The Role of Social Perceptiveness: A critical factor underpinning these synchrony patterns is social perceptiveness—the ability to pick up on subtle social cues and infer others’ thoughts and feelings. Woolley explained that teams with higher average social perceptiveness scores tend to exhibit higher CI. This ability, tested using tools like the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, is more commonly found in women, which partly explains the observed gender diversity benefits. Teams with members who are socially perceptive are better at synchronizing nonverbal cues, thereby enhancing CI. Conversely, the presence of a member with low social perceptiveness can significantly disrupt team dynamics and lower CI. As individuals rise within an organization, their social perceptiveness and empathy tend to decline. This presents a challenge for enhancing team effectiveness, as the factors contributing to collective intelligence—such as equal and effective communication—become less prevalent. 

Engagement and Collective Intelligence 

Moreover, Woolley addressed the importance of engagement in predicting CI. Teams that communicate more frequently and evenly distribute participation tend to exhibit higher CI. High social perceptiveness within the team facilitates uniformly high engagement, as perceptive members ensure everyone is involved and address disengagement proactively. 

In remote work environments, these engagement patterns remain predictive of CI, with social perceptiveness becoming even more critical. The ability to read subtle cues and facilitate interactions is crucial for maintaining high CI in distributed teams. Anita shared with her pod team, there’s a Unanimous AI’s Thinkscape platform uses swarm intelligence to facilitate large group deliberations. It breaks large groups into small pods of 6-8 people, allowing for more engaging discussions and efficient idea exchange. This approach, combined with AI agents, helps identify popular ideas and increases inclusivity. The technology shows promise in enhancing democratic participation by enabling more efficient and widespread engagement in decision-making processes. 


Anita explained that diverse teams, with a wider range of experiences and knowledge, act like a larger memory bank. This variety helps the team store and retrieve information more effectively. Imagine a team working on a design project. Someone with a background in engineering might remember technical specifications, while someone from marketing might recall customer preferences. Together, they can access a richer pool of knowledge to solve the problem. 


Woolley highlighted proved in one of her research works that social perceptiveness fosters synchrony within the team. Teams that can read each other’s cues and intentions are better at aligning their focus. This allows them to prioritize tasks effectively. Think about a team brainstorming solutions. By being attentive to nonverbal cues and actively listening, they can collectively decide which ideas deserve the most focus and discussion. 


It has been observed when everyone is working towards the same objective, collective reasoning flourishes. Diverse perspectives and clear communication, facilitated by social perceptiveness, lead to better decision-making. A team with a well-defined goal can leverage its combined knowledge and problem-solving skills to make sound choices and take effective actions. For instance, a sales team with a clear target can utilize the strengths of each member – analytical skills for market research, negotiation skills for closing deals – to achieve their collective goal. 

Collective Intelligence and AI

Anita Woolley shared recent research on AI agents in team settings. These agents are designed to establish psychological safety, particularly in healthcare, allowing providers to seek help or admit mistakes without fear. Acting as intermediaries, the AI agents address issues while avoiding personal conflicts. Woolley explained that similar AI tools can enhance knowledge visibility, facilitate transactive memory, manage collective attention, and balance uninterrupted work with timely connections. The ultimate aim is to establish and maintain collective goals within teams. 

Collective Intelligence & Capability Gap

Anita Woolley explained that identifying capability gaps in teams can be challenging due to individuals’ reluctance to reveal weaknesses. However, implementing systems to manage collective memory, attention, and reasoning can help streamline this process. Once these systems are in place, gaps become more apparent and can be addressed collectively. 

Woolley concluded by discussing current research directions, including work on AI in healthcare contexts, particularly in coordinating care for elderly individuals aging in place. She emphasized the potential for AI to act as a connective element in otherwise disconnected teams, helping to manage collective attention, memory, and decision-making. In her opinion, critical first step is to begin. There are various ways to start, such as focusing on transactive memory and social perceptiveness. Similarly, there are numerous levers to explore, and selecting just one can be risky. It is crucial to acknowledge this diversity of elements and avoid inertia or fear when introducing these new behaviors into organizations. 

About Anita Woolley

Dr. Anita Woolley is a leading expert in organizational behavior and team dynamics, serving as the Associate Dean of Research and Professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. Her groundbreaking research on collective intelligence has revolutionized our understanding of team performance, demonstrating that a group’s problem-solving ability can be measured and predicted.

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