Task Complexity Moderates Group Synergy


Complexity—defined in terms of the number of components and the nature of the interdependencies between them—is clearly a relevant feature of all tasks that groups perform. Yet the role that task complexity plays in determining group performance remains poorly understood, in part because no clear language exists to express complexity in a way that allows for straightforward comparisons across tasks. Here we avoid this analytical difficulty by identifying a class of tasks for which complexity can be varied systematically while keeping all other elements of the task unchanged. We then test the effects of task complexity in a preregistered two-phase experiment in which 1,200 individuals were evaluated on a series of tasks of varying complexity (phase 1) and then randomly assigned to solve similar tasks either in interacting groups or as independent individuals (phase 2). We find that interacting groups are as fast as the fastest individual and more efficient than the most efficient individual for complex tasks but not for simpler ones. Leveraging our highly granular digital data, we define and precisely measure group process losses and synergistic gains and show that the balance between the two switches signs at intermediate values of task complexity. Finally, we find that interacting groups generate more solutions more rapidly and explore the solution space more broadly than independent problem solvers, finding higher-quality solutions than all but the highest-scoring individuals.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences