By Carol Lloyd
Did you hear? There's now cold, hard research confirming what the Dilbert set have long known: meetings make you stupid. What's more, being ranked or assigned a status within a group can have a particularly pernicious effect on our grey matter. A new study -- led by a team of researchers at California Institute of Technology with four other institutions -- found that IQs can drop precipitously in group settings.
In the experiment 70 people were given paper-and-pencil IQ tests. They were then divided into similarly scoring groups of five. Seated with the group, each participant was then given a second IQ test, this time on a computer. After each question, individuals would get instant feedback from the screen showing how well they were doing compared to the group as a whole and to one other individual in the group. Initially, everyone performed worse on the test. But as the test continued, some test takers managed to improve, while others continued to perform worse than they had on their paper-and-pencil IQ tests.
IQ and anxiety of influence
In the end, the IQ of the lower performing test takers (the non-improvers) dropped an average of 17.4 points. For those of you unfamiliar with IQ scoring -- this is substantial. Much hay is made over far lesser IQ rises and falls. Question the whole IQ model of intelligence? Join the club. What's notable is that these findings suggest that IQ isn't stable (as has always been thought) but deeply influenced by the social setting of the environment.
Not surprisingly, this study is stirring up controversy in the conference rooms of America, the places where adults meet to team build, brainstorm, and make key strategic decisions. But I couldn't help thinking about what this research meant for the places where our children go to team build, brainstorm and well, take standardized tests: the modern classroom.
The downside of reading groups?
Watching my 12-year-old daughter struggle to figure out what she needs to concentrate gives me picture of how these principles may play out in real life. Like many kids nowadays, she never much liked school, but she loved learning. Her traditional but none-too-orderly classrooms in elementary school didn't capture her interest. Mostly she complained of "annoying boys" and kids who talked, the constant interruptions, the shifting of focus. Gradually I've learned that she's a) distractible in a group setting, b) competitive, and c) a deep, conscientious learner in the right context. I'm sure she'd be one of those test takers whose IQ plummets (right along with her mom).
There's thinking, learning, concentrating and all of these are difficult in a classroom where personalities, rivalries, self-consciousness can impinge on the task at hand. In light of this study even the benign reading groups (each with their own ranking within the class) might lower cognitive capacities for some students. The research also calls into question the toll that competitive settings have on learning. For some kids, it's no doubt motivating. But for some kids it's probably a distraction that deters their concentration. (I would be especially curious if this stupifying effect is worse for adolescents, who are particularly bothered by social ranking.)
Group think = intellectual funk?
The study doesn't only call into doubt the rankings of children in more traditional classrooms but certain popular assumptions of progressive education as well. In the crunchiest classrooms, kids are forever working in groups on projects, solving problems and inventing solutions in the form of recycled metropoli and mathematical marble runs. But if working in groups lowers some people's IQs then perhaps group work shouldn't be the primary path to improved academic performance. The study also may have implications for teaching girls and boys. Interestingly, women in the study were more influenced by the group setting -- they represented 11 of the 14 so-called low performers, while the men represented 10 of the 13 high performers. The researchers wouldn't hazard a guess as to why but one possibility is that women's heightened social awareness (yeah yeah we're trading in stereotypes but humor me, it's distracting when you judge me so harshly) --- um, um -- could be blocking the airways of concentration.
It's just the beginning of a field of research that will continue to probe the connections between our cognitive and emotional mind. In the meantime, it's worth wondering how many kids feel their IQs plummeting as they cross the threshold into their classrooms.