Collective learning: from collective intelligence to cultural evolution
Research has shown that some species show collective intelligence, where group members make joint decisions as a single cognitive unit. But many questions remain: How does collective intelligence shape individual intelligence? And can it can act as a cultural process, allowing groups to improve themselves by building on accumulated knowledge? Oxford University’s Dora Biro seeks to answer these questions in this groundbreaking project.
By pooling individual problem-solving capacities, groups can arrive at better decisions than solitary agents. But collective intelligence is usually studied as a one-off occurrence, which neglects its potential to act as a cumulative—and potentially cultural—process. The project’s key goal is to test the hypothesis that collective intelligence can indeed act cumulatively, making it pivotal to understanding all social groups.
Biro will create collective decision-making scenarios where individuals can repeatedly learn through their interactions with others (“collective learning”). In doing so, she will establish a novel synthesis between collective intelligence and the accumulation of knowledge at group level, which might signify the origins of culture. She will conduct research in study systems of varying cognitive sophistication: ants and birds, with planned extensions to others, such as humans and non-human apes. The research will examine
(1) when and how collective problem-solving shapes learning in individuals,
(2) how the process of group decision-making changes with experience, and
(3) whether intelligence that is generated and retained in a social context can foster improvement over time, leading to cumulative culture.
Empirical work will be complemented by theoretical treatments seeking common drivers of cumulative cultural phenomena.
Ultimately, the project promises to spark a major shift in our understanding of the link between individual and collective intelligence. It will, moreover, allow for applications across disciplines that focus on social interactions in long-lived groupings: education, computer science, the design of artificial systems, and many others.