Abstraction and cognitive flexibility in collective problem solving: The role of diversity

AbstractGroups of interacting individuals are often found to have an advantage over individuals in contexts of complex problem solving. We suggest that social interaction allows group members to share diverse introspections, perspectives and strategies, promoting the formation of more abstract problem representations, which – in turn – apply more flexibly to new problem contexts. In a reinforcement learning task inspired by the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST), participants categorized aliens as friendly or dangerous based on an underlying rule specifying feature combinations. After a number of correctly categorized trials, the rule would change (without explicit notification). Participants could solve the task by learning every new rule, but could also discover an underlying abstract rule, which would facilitate faster recovery from local rule changes. We compared pairs of participants individually trained on different rules (diversity pairs), with pairs trained on the same rule (non-diversity pairs), and individuals. We found that diversity pairs outperformed non- diverse pairs and individuals. Our findings suggest that diversity in prior experience benefits groups, likely due to processes of abstraction and cognitive flexibility.

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