Are Online Meetings Reducing Our Collective Intelligence?

online meetings collective intelligence
Are online meetings reducing our collective intelligence [CI]? New research from Carnegie Mellon has been widely interpreted as concluding that, for example, “Zoom is actually less effective than a phone call”, and “Video conferencing can hurt collaboration”.

Not so fast.

New research about online meetings

Here’s a summary of the research findings from the abstract of the article:

“We show that…the presence of visual cues surprisingly has no effect on CI; furthermore, teams without visual cues are more successful in synchronizing their vocal cues and speaking turns, and when they do so, they have higher CI. Our findings show that nonverbal synchrony is important in distributed collaboration and call into question the necessity of video support.”
Speaking out of turn: How video conferencing reduces vocal synchrony and collective intelligence. Maria Tomprou, Young Ji Kim, Prerna Chikersal, Anita Williams Woolley, Laura A. Dabbish

Translation: in the experimental setup used, the researchers found that online meeting participants were:

  • better able to avoid interrupting each other; and
  • shared the available time more equally.

There’s good evidence that both of these factors improve CI. How?  Theory of Mind (ToM) research shows that a group’s CI is correlated with members’ scores on a remarkable test: Reading the Mind in the Eyes (RME). Google’s Project Aristotle research on creating high-performing teams—i.e. teams with high CI—found that teams with high RME scores also displayed these two behaviors.

I don’t have the background to evaluate the experimental methodology and protocols used in the CMU research. But I have no problem accepting their results.

Where I disagree, however, is how the researchers extend their experimental findings to everyday online meetings.

Can we conclude that turning off video increases collective intelligence during online meetings?

I don’t think so. Why?

Because the vast majority of online meetings provide a significantly different environment than the CMU researchers used.

From the research article:

“…our findings were observed in newly formed and non-recurring dyads in the laboratory…”

“Each session lasted about 30 minutes. Members of each dyad were seated in two separate rooms. After participants completed the pre-test survey independently, they initiated a conference call with their partner. Participants logged onto the Platform for Online Group Studies … to complete the Test of Collective Intelligence (TCI) with their partner. The TCI contained six tasks ranging from 2 to 6 minutes each, and instructions were displayed before each task for 15 seconds to 1.5 minutes.”

Artificial online meetings

My first objection is that all the CMU experiments were conducted with only groups of two participants, neither of whom had ever met before.

This hardly describes the make-up of most online meetings. And, perhaps more important, when we are meeting with people for the first time there is a lot more to process than in subsequent meetings, when we already have some familiarity. An initial phone call with a stranger may be more comfortable than a Zoom video chat because it is less intimate.

My late mentor Jerry Weinberg encapsulated the overloading that occurs during an initial (consulting) meeting in his Five-Minute Rule:

“Clients always know how to solve their problems, and always tell you the solution in the first five minutes.”

Unbelievably, I’ve found this is true. Unfortunately, the problem is listening well enough, despite the initial sensory overload, to hear what needs to be heard.

Working as a team

My second objection concerns the brevity of the research exercises. “Six tasks ranging from 2 to 6 minutes each” simply doesn’t reflect what people with more than a passing relationship do in real-life meetings. In my experience, it takes time to build a sense of someone through their facial expressions and body language. It’s unrealistic to extrapolate from what occurs during a series of brief interactions with someone you’ve never met before to how a larger group will function during a longer meeting or series of meetings.

The following story may illustrate this point. In 2016, I experienced my first escape room. Two teams competed to escape two identical rooms. Both teams included people I hardly knew. (This occurred during the first Meeting Design Practicum in Utrecht, The Netherlands: more details here). One thing I noticed was that my impromptu “team” of strangers spent no time on body language cues while working together. As we explored the room, we would call out things we’d discovered, and other team members would gather and look at what we’d found. We communicated to each other by voice, and used our vision to concentrate on clues.

If I had stayed with the same team and continued to play escape room games, over time we would have picked up the body language of other players and been able to use it to improve how we worked together.

My experience of the value of seeing participants during online meetings

In my experience, I find seeing participants when meeting online to be useful in groups that have a relationship formed by multiple meetings over time. Although you might reasonably question whether eye contact with people online can evoke the same responses as seeing them in person, there is research that indicates that eye contact during online meetings creates the same kind of responses as eye contact face to face.

In addition, I think the CMU research actually supports my experience, when applied to longer and longer-term meetings with more participants. The article’s discussion includes this passage:

“we did find that in the video condition, facial expression synchrony predicts collective intelligence. This result suggests that when visual cues are available it is important that interaction partners attend to them.”

I would argue that the negative effect on CI that the research found when video was available is due to the overloading effects I described above. When team members become more familiar with each other, overloading disappears and visual clues are not a distraction but a positive influence on CI.

CMU discussion

The CMU researchers acknowledge the points I’ve made above.

“Our study has limitations, which offer opportunities for future research. For example, our findings were observed in newly formed and non-recurring dyads in the laboratory. It remains to be seen whether our findings will generalize to teams that are ongoing or in which there is greater familiarity among members, as in the case of distributed teams in organizations.”


So, are online meetings reducing our collective intelligence?

I hope my perspective will turn out to be valid, counteracting the initial, IMO overblown, interpretations of the CMU research. Although we all hope things will change, right now, we can’t universally meet safely face-to-face without social distancing and wearing masks. Both these requirements significantly reduce our ability to “read” others. Given the ease of meeting online, and the fact that we can actually do decent eye contact there, I’d argue that online meetings with video have the advantage right now.

P.S. Bonus tips! It can be hard to figure out who should go first or speak next during an online meeting with multiple participants. Check out my posts “Who goes first?” and “Who goes next?” for ideas!

Do you think online meetings are reducing our collective intelligence? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Image attribution: Business people having online meeting by Jacob Lund from Noun Project

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