Consider That Your Zoom Conferences Might Be Sapping Your Collective Intelligence

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Even as things are fitfully returning to a post-pandemic normal (perhaps against the current COVID Omicron variant-driven medical advice) one feature of the last 21 months seems to be lingering: the Zoom conference. In legal settings, these video conferences are being  used increasingly for team meetings, witness preparation sessions, hearings, and more. As the goal of limiting COVID exposure starts to fade, other goals — ease of scheduling, less travel, no conference rooms — have come to the fore. And in many ways, the meetings themselves seem nearly as good, so many of us are thinking, “Why not Zoom?” But it still pays to be sensitive to the medium, especially as the research catches up.

One new study (Tomprou et al., 2021) suggests that distributed web-conferences may be sapping our collective intelligence. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon and UC Santa Barbara conducted a study looking at the ability of groups to adapt to each other (something called “non-verbal synchrony”) in completing tasks, compared video-conferences to simple phone calls, and found that the visuals might be limiting the results. “Surprisingly,” they write, “our findings suggest that video access may, in fact, impede the development of prosodic synchrony by creating greater speaking turn inequality, countering some prevailing assumptions about the importance of richer media to facilitate distributed collaboration.” This has implications on whether, as well as how, we ought to be relying on web conferences for creative tasks.

The Research: The Problem of Non-Verbal Synchrony

The authors start with a common observation that communication is about more than words. Non-verbal communications regulate a conversation’s pace and flow, and that  flow is important to the group attaining a higher collective intelligence (greater smarts than any one individual would have on their own) and achieving its goals.

Part of what needs to happen is a group synchrony — an alignment of behaviors and communications. It can be something as clear as turn-taking or as abstract as a common understanding of purpose. The researchers looked at the extent to which distributed collaborators — those communicating over web-conference — could develop that non-verbal synchrony.

Specifically, there were two kinds of nonverbal synchrony they looked at: facial expression (what you can see) and prosodic synchrony (what you can hear — intonation, emphasis, rhythm of speech). What the researchers found is that visual synchrony matters when you can see each other, of course. But they found that prosodic synchrony is hampered to some extent in a video environment. Specifically, they found that groups engage in more equal and more effective turn-taking when they can only hear but not see. “Our findings show that nonverbal synchrony is important in distributed collaboration and call into question the necessity of video support.” In other words, it might be better with the cameras off.

The Implications: Give Some Thought to the Best Medium for Your Brainstorming

If your goals are logistical or social rather than creative, then there is still something to seeing the face behind the voice, so go ahead and cue up the video conference. But if your goals focus on creative problem-solving, then this research gives reason to challenge the assumption that video is necessarily better. The authors note that previous research has not found this problem in face-to-face encounters, so it may have something to do with the lag or the eye-contact gap (looking at the screen is not the same as looking at the camera). But it is for some reason harder to attend to both the visual and the auditory on a video conference than it is in person. When a screen is serving you a more information-rich environment, it may simply be easier to get distracted.

This falls short of saying “Zoom is doom,” but it does suggest that there are some important considerations before embracing a default video conference standard for all meetings. There are also likely ways to improve the video conferencing experience. The researchers note, “We did find that in the video condition, facial expression synchrony predicts collective intelligence. This result suggests that when visual cues are available it is important that interaction partners attend to them.”

But it is also important to not assume the communication is better just because you can see your colleagues. The authors suggest that it will sometimes make sense to simply  turn off your camera or just rely on telephone. Whether your exercise of collective intelligence is a strategy session or a jury deliberation, it is critical to emphasize speaking equality, and to pay attention to both your ears and your eyes.

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Tomprou, M., Kim, Y. J., Chikersal, P., Woolley, A. W., & Dabbish, L. A. (2021). Speaking out of turn: How video conferencing reduces vocal synchrony and collective intelligence. PloS one, 16(3), e0247655.

Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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