Transparently-shared ideas, like those that circulate on popular social networks such as Digg, Delicious, and StumbleUpon, may be destroying people's creativity. According to a new study published today by two cognitive scientists, people who share ideas in large groups tend to stagnate rather than innovate. They "glom onto" popular ideas and then don't pursue new discoveries or breakthroughs because they've already accepted the common wisdom of the crowd. Small groups, however, offer a different story.
According to a statement about the research from Indiana University:
When information is freely shared, good ideas can stunt innovation by distracting others from pursuing even better ideas, according to Indiana University cognitive scientist Robert Goldstone . . .The Downside of a Good Idea [Eurekalert]
This study used a virtual environment in which study participants worked in specifically designed groups to solve a problem . . . In the "fully connected" group, everyone's work was completely accessible to everyone else — much like a tight-knit family or small town. In the "locally connected" group, participants primarily were aware of what their neighbors, or the people on either side, were doing. In the "small world" group, participants also were primarily aware of what their neighbors were doing, but they also had a few distant connections that let them send or retrieve good ideas from outside of their neighborhood.
Goldstone found that the fully connected groups performed the best when solving simple problems. Small world groups, however, performed better on more difficult problems. For these problems, the truism "The more information, the better" is not valid.
"The small world network preserves diversity," Goldstone said. "One clique could be coming up with one answer, another clique could be coming up with another. As a result, the group as a whole is searching the problem space more effectively. For hard problems, connecting people by small world networks offers a good compromise between having members explore a variety of innovations, while still quickly disseminating promising innovations throughout the group.