If you put two birds together and gave them a problem, would they be any better at solving it than if they were alone? A study in Animal Behaviour of common mynas finds that not only are they no better at problem solving when in a pair than when on their own, the birds actually get a lot worse when put in a group.
Andrea S. Griffin and her research team from the University of Newcastle in Callaghan, Australia, began by using dog food pellets as bait to capture common mynas (a.k.a. the Indian mynah, Acridotheres tristis) from around Newcastle. Then they gave each of the birds an innovation test, consisting of a box containing a couple of drawers and some Petri dishes. To get to the food hidden in spots in the box, the birds would have to get creative and figure out how to open one of the four containers by doing things like levering up a lid or pushing open a drawer. The scientists then ranked the birds by innovative ability before pairing them up. Half the pairs consisted of a high-innovation and a low-innovation myna, and the other half were pairs of medium-innovation birds. Then the pairs each received an innovation test similar to the one with boxes. Another experiment tested the birds in same-sex groups of five.
On their own, 29 of 34 birds were able to access at least one container. But in pairs, only 15 of the 34 birds did so, and they took a lot longer. Performance dropped for both high- and medium-innovation birds, and it didn’t improve for the low-ranked ones, which had done so poorly the first time around that their results couldn’t get any worse. In groups of five, birds’ results fell even further: No mynas solved any of those tasks.
The researchers had thought that mynas might be more innovative in a group, they write, in part because “social gatherings group together individuals with differing skills to bring to bear on a novel problem, thus facilitating problem solving.” That brainstorming behavior obviously did not happen. Instead, risk and competition probably were bigger players in this equation. The birds might not have wanted to try something creative if another bird were just going to steal their food. Or, the researchers say, the mynas might somehow avoid a potentially risky behavior when in a group – innovation might, for instance, increase predation risk.
The myna study reminded me of something written by Susan Cain, who is famous for her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. She debunked the value of brainstorming sessions for humans. It may seem that putting together a group of smart people and asking them to get creative would result in more imaginative solutions than they would come up with on their own. But the truth is the opposite, as Cain noted in 2012 in the New York Times:
Brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity…. Decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases…. The reasons brainstorming fails are instructive for other forms of group work, too. People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.
It may have been unrealistic for the researchers in this bird study to expect mynas to act any differently than humans.