Can Being a Team Player Actually Make You Dumber?

Office Party
Photo courtesy of Jason Pratt

You might think this is the setup for an elaborate Jersey Shore joke, but according to recent research from the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, the social dynamics of small group settings, such as office meetings or get-togethers with friends, can actually affect cognitive function negatively, making you behave less intelligently than you would if you were on your own and not receiving social feedback.

While it may be tempting to use this as an excuse for your behavior at the Christmas party last year, a more relevant issue is how your performance at work or on personal projects could be affected by the subtle dynamics of the group you’re working with. According to the study, group members exhibit decreased cognitive function when they feel concerned about their social status and ranking in the group. The stress of worrying about how you are being perceived can temporarily interfere with your ability to solve problems and make decisions. That interference goes away when you stop receiving social feedback cues that you interpret as being indicative of your standing in the group.

Employers often seek out people who are eager to work as part of team, but could that tactic be backfiring on them? Do you feel that group situations bring out the best in you, or do think you do your best work on your own? Do you think there is a way to create more of an even playing field in group settings so that people are less likely to be made aware of differences in social standing?

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    • Ben Rasmusen

      That research paper is super interesting. I wonder how this scales to groups larger than 5 people. 

      I’ve always disliked small group get togethers because I felt the discussions were typically lacking in substance. Small group communication seems to stay just above phatic at best. I much prefer one on one interaction. It’s very interesting to see some scientific research on this topic.

      Teams in the workplace is an interesting application. It seems like the natural response to social standings are made worse by the explicit social standings within the workplace. Coworkers vying for status instead of the best solution to a problem. Maybe making the interactions more asynchronous and detached like through a company email list might mitigate some of these effects.

      Great post!