Innovation, imitation, and problem-solving in a networked group

Wisdom, T. N., & Goldstone, R. L. (2011).  Innovation, imitation, and problem-solving in a networked group.  Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, 15, 229-252.

We implemented a problem-solving task in which groups of participants simultaneously played a simple innovation game in a complex problem space, with score feedback provided after each of a number of rounds. Each participant in a group was allowed to view and imitate the guesses of others during the game. The results showed the use of social learning strategies previously studied in other species, and demonstrated benefits of social learning and nonlinear effects of group size on strategy and performance. Rather than simply encouraging conformity, groups provided information to each individual about the distribution of useful innovations in the problem space. Imitation facilitated innovation rather than displacing it, because the former allowed good solutions to be propagated and preserved for further cumulative innovations in the group. Participants generally improved their solutions through the use of fairly conservative strategies, such as changing only a small portion of one’s solution at a time, and tending to imitate solutions similar to one’s own. Changes in these strategies over time had the effect of making solutions increasingly entrenched, both at individual and group levels. These results showed evidence of nonlinear dynamics in the decentralization of innovation, the emergence of group phenomena from complex interactions of individual efforts, stigmergy in the use of social information, and dynamic tradeoffs between exploration and exploitation of solutions. These results also support the idea that innovation and creativity can be recognized at the group level even when group members are generally cautious and imitative.

Download this paper