It takes two to tango, but not to brainstorm

Trying to come up with a new idea? Get a group together and brainstorm ideas, right? Wrong. The best way to brainstorm is on your own. Well, unless you’re trying to solve a logical problem. Then you need three people. That’s what scientists are telling us, anyway.

We are more creative on our own.

Do you brainstorm better in a group or as an individual? You probably think you’re achieving more in a group, but the truth is you’re most likely better off going solo. Most research concludes people are more creative on their own, even though most people assume groups will come up with better ideas. Psychologists call it the illusion of group of productivity. We call it the “feel good” not “get good” syndrome, because while people feel good after brainstorming in a group, the results aren’t necessarily good.

Researchers at the University of Amsterdam have put the theories to the test. They asked individuals and groups to come up with ideas for boosting tourism in the Dutch town of Utrecht. Afterwards they asked the individuals and group members how they thought they had performed. The group members felt more satisfied with their performance and reported fewer failures to come up with new ideas than the individuals.

When we’re in a group, the researchers say, the pressure isn’t always on the individual because other people are talking and there is an illusion of “productivity”. It means we are less conscious of our failure to think of a new idea. There is also memory confusion, where group members mistake other people’s ideas as their own. And there is social comparison, where group members see that others may be struggling to come up with ideas too.

Three’s a crowd? Not necessarily.

A study at the University of Illinois shows that groups of three are best for solving logic-based problems. The researchers randomly attached the numbers one to ten with the letters A to J, and asked respondents to figure out what corresponded to what.

The respondents could ask the researchers the answers to equations, such as A + B, generating an answer in the form of a letter. The respondents could then guess what the letter stands for, with the researchers answering true or false.

The performance of individuals was compared to that of two, three, four and five person groups. Here’s what they found:

  • Groups of two were no better than a person working alone.
  • Groups of four or five consistently outperformed individuals working on the same task. They were quicker and came up with more sophisticated equations.
  • The groups three were just as good as groups of four or five, suggesting that three is the ideal size.

The researchers conclude that groups of three are best when it comes to using logic to solve a problem. So next time you need to work out how much paper to put in the photocopier, grab two others to help you work it out!