Many human endeavors—from teams and organizations to crowds and democracies—rely on solving problems collectively. Prior research has shown that when people interact and influence each other while solving complex problems, the average problem-solving performance of the group increases, but the best solution of the group actually decreases in quality. We find that when such influence is intermittent it improves the average while maintaining a high maximum performance. We also show that storing solutions for quick recall is similar to constant social influence. Instead of supporting more transparency, the results imply that technologies and organizations should be redesigned to intermittently isolate people from each other’s work for best collective performance in solving complex problems.Abstract
People influence each other when they interact to solve problems. Such social influence introduces both benefits (higher average solution quality due to exploitation of existing answers through social learning) and costs (lower maximum solution quality due to a reduction in individual exploration for novel answers) relative to independent problem solving. In contrast to prior work, which has focused on how the presence and network structure of social influence affect performance, here we investigate the effects of time. We show that when social influence is intermittent it provides the benefits of constant social influence without the costs. Human subjects solved the canonical traveling salesperson problem in groups of three, randomized into treatments with constant social influence, intermittent social influence, or no social influence. Groups in the intermittent social-influence treatment found the optimum solution frequently (like groups without influence) but had a high mean performance (like groups with constant influence); they learned from each other, while maintaining a high level of exploration. Solutions improved most on rounds with social influence after a period of separation. We also show that storing subjects’ best solutions so that they could be reloaded and possibly modified in subsequent rounds—a ubiquitous feature of personal productivity software—is similar to constant social influence: It increases mean performance but decreases exploration.