Drop the Zoom video? Audio-only communication boosts group IQ

Drop the Zoom video? Audio-only communication boosts group IQ
Could switching off the video on that Zoom call help a group work more effectively?
Could switching off the video on that Zoom call help a group work more effectively?
View 1 Image
Could switching off the video on that Zoom call help a group work more effectively?
Could switching off the video on that Zoom call help a group work more effectively?

A new study led by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University is challenging the common assumption that video conferencing is better than audio-only communication for collaborative group activities. The findings suggest video cues may in fact lower a group’s collective intelligence by disrupting interpersonal synchrony.

Early in 2020, when the pandemic hit and many suddenly shifted to working remotely, the ability to easily communicate with colleagues via video was a godsend. No one really questioned how effective communicating over video was, as for years it had been generally assumed video cues amplify effective group collaboration when compared to audio-only interactions.

Collective intelligence is the idea that a group of people collaborating generate better solutions to problems than individuals working alone, and over the last few decades researchers have closely studied how groups work together. It is generally understood that when people synchronize nonverbal cues in group collaborative activities their collective intelligence (or group IQ) increases and better outcomes are achieved.

So, if we are trying to replicate face-to-face interactions, of course it is reasonable to assume adding video cues to an interaction would increase synchrony and heighten a group’s collective intelligence. But despite these common assumptions there is very little empirical research to prove video conferencing improves collective problem solving compared to audio-only interactions.

To study this question the new research specifically looked at two types of nonverbal cues people rely on to achieve synchrony in group settings – facial expression synchrony and prosodic synchrony.

Facial expression synchrony, such as smiling in response to another person smiling, has been thought to dominate the formation of group collective intelligence. Prosodic synchrony, on the other hand, relating to the tone and rhythm of speech, has been considered secondary to facial cues in group interactions.

The new research recruited around 200 subjects who were divided into pairs. Each subject communicated remotely with their partner, completing a series of tasks designed to test their collective intelligence. Half the cohort of pairs communicated by video and audio, while the other half communicated through audio only.

The surprising results revealed video cues had no effect on collective intelligence. In fact, the video groups displayed reductions in prosodic synchrony, suggesting videoconferencing can make it more difficult to synchronize conversational behaviors.

Removing the distractions of video cues actually improved prosodic synchrony in the audio-only group, and subsequently led to better problem-solving outcomes. This suggests audio-only interactions can lead to greater group collective intelligence.

“… our findings suggest that visual nonverbal cues may also enable some interacting partners to dominate the conversation,” the researchers write in the new study. “By contrast, we show that when interacting partners have audio cues only, the lack of video does not hinder them from communicating these rules but instead helps them to regulate their conversation more smoothly by engaging in more equal exchange of turns and by establishing improved prosodic synchrony.”

In the video groups facial expression synchrony was achieved, however, it is noted this was often at the expense of prosodic synchrony. Video cues unexpectedly disrupted conversational flows in ways not seen with audio-only interactions, and overall this reduced a group’s collective intelligence.

"We found that video conferencing can actually reduce collective intelligence," explains co-author on the study Anita Williams Woolley. "This is because it leads to more unequal contribution to conversation and disrupts vocal synchrony. Our study underscores the importance of audio cues, which appear to be compromised by video access."

This study is not without its limitations, of course. The focus was very specifically investigating the value of facial synchrony in pairs completing particular problem-solving tasks. The researchers are very aware larger groups may be subject to different demands when trying to achieve collective synchrony.

In particular it is noted that individual members of a group can dominate conversations in larger collaborative activities. So further research is needed to understand whether interventions such as consciously speaking in turns can enhance prosodic synchrony in the context of larger groups.

It is also unclear whether group familiarity plays a role in the factors that generate collective intelligence. Does video help or hinder group synchrony and collective intelligence in an interaction with half a dozen colleagues who have been working together for years?

This research sits along side other new investigations into the effects of remote videoconferencing on work practices. A recent study from a Stanford University communications expert, for example, looked at the novel anecdotal phenomenon of "zoom fatigue" and suggested videoconferencing is uniquely exhausting and should only be conservatively used in contexts that demand visual communications.

This new study comes to a similar conclusion – videoconferencing may not be better for all forms of virtual communication. Although this certainly is still an incredibly nascent field of study, and there is a vital need for more research, the takeaway seems to be audio-only communication could be superior for some kinds of collaborative problem-solving activities.

“Extrapolating from our results,” the researchers conclude in the study, “one can argue that limited access to video may promote better communication and social interaction during collaborative problem solving, as there are fewer stimuli to distract collaborators. Consequently, we may achieve greater problem solving if new technologies offer fewer distractions and less visual stimuli.”

The new study was published in the journal PLOS One.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

yup.. I always said that...
I would tend to think reducing the number of participants would also be beneficial. One-on-one interaction is usually better than trying to work with a large group.
Jean H
I disagree with "distraction" being the problem. Do Zoom participants feel the need to stare at their screens because the faces are there? Are they unaware that (for me, anyway), it's natural to look away while thinking and expressing ideas?

When gripped by an important idea, I'm more concerned about expressing it than seeing how other(s) are reacting. When I'm Zooming, my habits don't change.
Unless I need to share something, I keep my camera & mic turned off.