Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Who is to blame when groups succeed or fail?

How good are people at assigning credit and blame?

Group working as a teamIn the modern world, assigning blame to groups is difficult. In schools, we want to teach children to collaborate with others on work, but at the same time each individual student ultimately needs a grade. In work settings, most projects are too big for individuals to do by themselves, but in the end, every person gets an individual paycheck. We assume that raises and bonuses at work should be based on effectiveness.

In order for this to work, though, people have to be good at judging the importance of other people's contribution to group efforts.

Tobias Gerstenberg and David Lagnado looked at this issue in a 2010 paper in the journal Cognition. They asked people to play a game with a group. In this game, each person was led to believe that they were playing with a team of other players linked by computer. Each player was shown a screen with triangles and they had to count all of them in a short period of time. The game is tricky, because combinations of smaller triangles can create larger triangles.

Different groups had different rules that would allow them to win the game.

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Tug of warIn the tug-of-war group, the errors made by each person were added together, and if that error was less than a particular value, the team won that round, otherwise they lost. This game is like tug-of-war, because each player contributes something to the final outcome.

In the weakest link game, every player had to be within 2 triangles of the correct value on that round in order to win.

In the superstar game, at least one player had to get the correct answer on that round in order to win.

The participant got to see the responses by each of their teammates and how much those responses missed the actual value. Then, for each player, they had to assign how much credit the player should get for a win or how much blame they should get for a loss.

People in this study were pretty good at assigning blame appropriately. For example, in the superstar game, any player who got the correct answer got a lot of credit for a win, and none of the people who got the wrong answer were given credit. When the team lost in this game, everyone shared equally in the blame.

In the weakest link game, people got the most credit for a win when they were within one triangle of the correct answer and the most blame when their answers were more distant from the correct one.

In the tug-of-war game, credit and blame were assigned based on how close people were to the correct answer.

These results should be heartening to any of us who have to be judged in group settings. The findings suggest that when people know the contribution of each individual in a group, then they do a reasonable job of assigning credit and blame for the group outcome.

Of course, part of the problem with group settings is that it is often difficult to assess the contribution of individuals. Psychologists use the term social loafing to refer to people to ride on the labor of others in a group setting and do not pull their own weight. When a group project is complex, it can be difficult to figure out whether some people are loafing. Even if everyone works hard, it is not always obvious which people contributed most to the success of the group. Because of the importance of group work, though, it is important for psychologists to spend more time studying this issue.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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