Biology Magazine

Teamwork Makes Us Lazy and Slower at Learning

Posted on the 13 September 2018 by Reprieve @EvoAnth

Teamwork is something humans do really well. In fact, it's our niche; it's what we evolved to do. Whilst whales got big tales to swim, we got big brains to help us socialise.

One of the big advantages of teamwork is social learning; which is the fancy scientific way of saying "learning from others." Whether it's being taught by an elder, watching a weather forecast, or sharing knowledge to solve a problem together, social learning is key to our smarts1.

But all of these benefits do come with a cost. Our brain has to put in some effort to process what we're learning, figure out the message, evaluate its reliability, and then adapt our behaviour accordingly 1.

Or we could just not bother.

That was the speculation of researchers Derex and Boyd 2, who hypothesised that our brain might take shortcuts during social learning. Rather than putting in the effort, we might just copy what others are doing. Or assume a teacher is right without a thorough examination.

And since these guys are experienced researchers with many articles under their belt, let's just take a cognitive shortcut and assume they're right.

Testing lazy brains

Humans are pretty good at spotting patterns, to the point where we sometimes find them where they don't actually exist. Derex and Boyd speculated that this might be something that gets sacrificed in the name of a cognitive shortcut 2.

There's some prior evidence for this. Humans will often copy someone without figuring out the pattern behind their actions. This leads to all sorts of humorous scenarios where people will copy unnecessary steps in a task. To the point where we make things harder than they need to be. However, these prior studies didn't shed much light on why people were being cognitively lazy; just that we often are. So Derex and Boyd had to devise their own experiment to see of teamwork really was the cause 2.

Their experiment was deceptively simple, yet really hard to explain. So here's a picture instead:

The key to success here is figuring out the rule. In this case, it's matching the keycards up clockwise; but Derex and Boyd mixed up the rules each time. Their hypothesis: it should take people working as a team longer to figure out the rule.

And it turned out they were right. Only 40% of people from teams figured out the rule after successfully opening the safe 6 times. By that point, everyone working by themselves had realised the rule.

Teamwork comes out on top

On the surface, it seems that teamwork makes us dumb. The rate of successfully figuring out the rule in a team was much lower than when working alone. Despite this, the overall results from Derex and Boyds' experiments didn't make teamwork seem that bad.

See, whilst it took groups more successful attempts to figure out the rule, they got those successes quicker. People working by themselves required fewer successes, but it took them more tries to achieve them.

How can groups be so successful yet take so long to figure out why they're successful? Part of it seems to do with hangers-on. If one member of the group has got the solution down, there's little motivation for others to figure out the answer. They can just ride on the successful guy's coattails.

Hence the end of the above graph, where the success rate drops dramatically when group members are isolated. When the free-riders are no longer able to rely on their chum, they do a lot worse than individual learners.

All in all, it seems teamwork still comes out on top. But it isn't without its downsides. It gives people the chance to be intellectually lazy and ultimately reliant on the group to carry them to success.

Which if you've ever done a group project, you probably already knew.


  1. van der Post, D.J., Franz, M. and Laland, K.N., 2016. Skill learning and the evolution of social learning mechanisms. BMC evolutionary biology, 16(1), p.166.
  2. Derex, M. and Boyd, R., 2018. Social information can potentiate understanding despite inhibiting cognitive effort. Scientific reports, 8(1), p.9980.

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