This study just revealed the simple key to team collaboration

Illustrator: Ashley Siebels

They say opposites attract. Well, according to a new study, they also do a pretty good job of making collaborative decisions.

Researchers at Florida State University and the University of Houston say groups make their best and most efficient decisions when members think and process information differently.

No two people on this planet are exactly the same. However, when it comes to making decisions, most people fall into one of two categories: impulsive or deliberate.

Impulsive thinkers tend to reach their decisions quickly and don’t make a habit of dwelling on the smaller details. Deliberate decision-makers on the other hand usually analyze every detail, oftentimes to an excessive degree, on their way to a final decision. 

On the surface, it sounds like it would be a nightmare to try and reach a consensus within a group of both deliberate and impulsive thinkers. Surprisingly, though, the research team found that diverse-thinking groups typically come to better decisions in a shorter amount of time than groups consisting of similarly-minded individuals.

So, what exactly is going on here? Study co-author Bhargav Karamched, an assistant professor of mathematics at FSU, says it’s all about the unique qualities that both personality types bring to the table. 

“In groups with impulsive and deliberate individuals, the first decision is made quickly by an impulsive individual who needs little evidence to make a choice,” he explains in a release. “But, even when wrong, this fast decision can reveal the correct options to everyone else. This is not the case in homogenous groups.”

A diverse group can utilize the best of both decision-making worlds. For example, imagine a group of office co-workers is tasked with deciding if their company should switch to Apple computers or stay with Microsoft.

The design team, filled with far more impulsive thinkers than deliberate planners, quickly makes an argument that Apple is the way to go. The accounting department, consisting of mostly deliberate decision-makers, then enter the discussion and remind the entire group that their company’s computer programs are a far better fit for Microsoft computers.

The entire group wouldn’t have made the right decision (Microsoft) as quickly if the design team hadn’t impulsively argued in favor of new Macbooks for everyone right off the bat. 

When an entire group consists of similarly-minded people who approach a decision or problem from the same perspective, it’s far easier to get bogged down or stuck on one detail or aspect of the situation. A diverse group of different thinkers can make the entire decision-making process easier by providing a new way of looking at things.

Attained via a series of complex mathematical modeling programs, Karamched says group decision-making usually comes down to how members exchange information among one another. It’s all about taking the collective knowledge of the entire group and using it to produce the best possible outcome.

Building on that last point, the study’s authors stress that it’s important to understand how each individual absorbs and integrates new information from other group-members into their own personal knowledge. Somewhat surprisingly, there hasn’t been all that much research on that subject matter specifically up until now.

“This work was motivated by that,” Karamched adds. “How should individuals optimally accumulate evidence they see for themselves with evidence they obtain from their peers to make the best possible decisions?”

These findings only apply to situations in which the members of a group looking to make a decision all have different bits of knowledge to contribute. Karamched says he would have to perform further calculations to account for all members of a group having access to the same information.

“For example, to choose between voting Republican or Democrat in an election, the information available to everyone is common and not specifically made for one individual,” he notes. “Including correlations will require developing novel techniques to analyze models we develop.”

In conclusion, the research team believes a group is most capable of reaching a correct, sensible decision quickly if it is made up of diverse thinkers who all bring some new information or insight to the table.

“Collective social decision making is valuable if all individuals have access to different types of information,” says senior study author Krešimir Josi, Moores Professor of Mathematics, Biology, and Biochemistry at the University of Houston.

Beyond decisions in general, life is in many ways defined by how one looks at it. There’s always another angle to take when viewing a problem, big decision, or situation. In many cases, all it takes is a fresh perspective to see the right solution.

The full study can be found here, published in Physical Review Letters.