Problem Solving: Teamwork May Be Best

Teams of 3-5 People Better at Solving Complex Problems Than Individuals

From the WebMD Archives

April 25, 2006 -- Got a thorny problem? You might want to call in your problem-solving squad.

A new study shows that complex problems are best solved by teams of three, four, or five people, compared to people who tackle the same problems by themselves or with one other person.

Just ask Patrick Laughlin, PhD, and colleagues from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They published a study on the topic in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The study included 760 university students. All were given a complicated code in which the letters A through J randomly represented the numbers 1-10. Laughlin's team asked the students to try to crack the code as presented in a series of equations.

Go It Alone or Get Help?

The researchers randomly assigned students to work by themselves or in groups of two, three, four, or five. Everyone got plenty of scratch paper and the same ground rules.

Teams or individuals worked on the equations and then submitted their answers. If their answer wasn't right, they tried again.

Teams of three, four, or five people were better at solving the problems than the individuals, submitting fewer wrong answers before arriving at the solution. Even the top-performing individuals didn't match the teams of three, four, or five students.

After the tests, participants generally rated the challenge as enjoyable, whether they had worked alone or in groups.

Groups of Three

What about the two-person teams? They were about as good as the individuals who were best at problem solving. Brainstorming seemed to work best in groups of at least three people, the researchers note.

"Group members combined their abilities and resources" to outperform individuals on the task, write Laughlin and colleagues.

The researchers point out that the problems, while complex, obeyed the rules of math and logic and had clear answers. The students weren't tackling personal or emotional problems, which may be harder to nail down or prove correct.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Ann Edmundson, MD, PhD on April 25, 2006


SOURCES: Laughlin, P. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, April 2006; vol 90: pp 644-651. News release, American Psychological Association.
© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.