The brilliance of the smartphone is its ability to answer almost any question in mere seconds. If we can’t find what we’re looking for online, we can message a friend. Communication technology has given us the gift of constant contact, and while one might think this can only mean positive things for problem-solving, new research suggests it might also be somewhat of a curse.

Researchers from the Harvard Business School, the School of Business at Boston University, and Northeastern University wanted to understand how collective intelligence is affected by the constant or intermittent use of communication technology. In order to see how effectively people can solve complex problems when engaging in different levels of remote collaboration, the researchers put subjects into random groups of three and gave each subject the same problem to solve. Subjects had to find the shortest path among 25 cities on a map, visiting each city once, then returning to the original city. Each participant had to solve this puzzle on a computer, and was given 17 tries. Participant triads existed under one of three conditions; some were able to see their neighbors’ responses after each try, some could see their neighbors’ solutions only after try 4, 7, 10, 13, and 16, and some never saw their neighbors’ attempts.

Results revealed that those who worked in isolation generated the most diverse set of answers, but only found the optimum answer 44% of the time. Those who interacted constantly generated very similar answers, and were only correct one-third of the time. Those who were exposed to others’ ideas intermittently generated a decently diverse set of answers, though not as high as the control group, but they did generate the optimum answer 48.3% of the time. This suggests that a balance between independent exploration and learning from peers leads most frequently to the correct answer.

The researchers point out that though it’s tempting to take advantage of the transparency-enhancing capabilities of communication technology, being constantly "on" can make it difficult for individuals to cultivate their own, unique problem-solving skills and answers. Receiving input from others is important, but only as long as it doesn’t interfere with the individual’s process. In understanding the role our phones and messaging platforms can play in complex problem-solving, both academia and the business world can create an environment better suited to the regular, but not constant, use of these important tools.

Bernstein, E., Shore, J., & Lazer, D. (2018). How intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1802407115

Image:by William Iven via Unsplash.