The Collective Intelligence of Women Could Save the World

Neil deGrasse Tyson was once asked about his thoughts on the cosmos. In a slow, gloomy voice, he intoned, “The universe is a deadly place. At every opportunity, it’s trying to kill us. And so is Earth. From sinkholes to tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, tsunamis.” Tyson humorously described a very real problem: the universe is a vast obstacle course of catastrophic dangers. Asteroid impacts, supervolcanic eruptions, and global pandemics represent existential risks that could annihilate our species or irreversibly catapult us back into the Stone Age.

But nature is the least of our worries. Today’s greatest existential risks stem from advanced technologies like nuclear weapons, biotechnology, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and even artificial superintelligence. These tools could trigger a disaster of unprecedented proportions. Exacerbating this situation are “threat multipliers” — issues like climate change and biodiveristy loss, which, while devastating in their own right, can also lead to an escalation of terrorism, pandemics, famines, and potentially even the use of WTDs (weapons of total destruction).

The good news is that none of these existential threats are inevitable. Humanity can overcome every single known danger. But accomplishing this will require the smartest groups working together for the common good of human survival.

So, how do we ensure that we have the smartest groups working to solve the problem?

Get women involved.

A 2010 study, published in Science, made two unexpected discoveries. First, it established that groups can exhibit a collective intelligence (or c factor). Most of us are familiar with general human intelligence, which describes a person’s intelligence level across a broad spectrum of cognitive tasks. It turns out groups also have a similar “collective” intelligence that determines how successfully they can navigate these cognitive tasks. This is an important finding because “research, management, and many other kinds of tasks are increasingly accomplished by groups — working both face-to-face and virtually.” To optimize group performance, we need to understand what makes a group more intelligent.

This leads to the second unexpected discovery. Intuitively, one might think that groups with really smart members will themselves be really smart. This is not the case. The researchers found no strong correlation between the average intelligence of members and the collective intelligence of the group. Similarly, one might suspect that the group’s IQ will increase if a member of the group has a particularly high IQ. Surely a group with Noam Chomsky will perform better than one in which he’s replaced by Joe Schmo. But again, the study found no strong correlation between the smartest person in the group and the group’s collective smarts.

Instead, the study found three factors linked to group intelligence. The first pertains to the “social sensitivity” of group members, measured by the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test. This term refers to one’s ability to infer the emotional states of others by picking up on certain non-verbal clues. The second concerns the number of speaking turns taken by members of the group. “In other words,” the authors write, “groups where a few people dominated the conversation were less collectively intelligent than those with a more equal distribution of conversational turn-taking.”

The last factor relates to the number of female members: the more women in the group, the higher the group’s IQ. As the authors of the study explained, “c was positively and significantly correlated with the proportion of females in the group.” If you find this surprising, you’re not alone: the authors themselves didn’t anticipate it, nor were they looking for a gender effect.

Why do women make groups smarter? The authors suggest that it’s because women are, generally speaking, more socially sensitive than men, and the link between social sensitivity and collective intelligence is statistically significant.

Another possibility is that men tend to dominate conversations more than women, which can disrupt the flow of turn-taking. Multiple studies have shown that women are interrupted more often than men; that when men interrupt women, it’s often to assert dominance; and that men are more likely to monopolize professional meetings. In other words, there’s robust empirical evidence for what the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit describes as “mansplaining.”

These data have direct implications for existential riskology:

Given the unique, technogenic dangers that haunt the twenty-first century, we need the smartest groups possible to tackle the problems posed by existential risks. We need groups comprised of women.

Yet the existential risk community is marked by a staggering imbalance of gender participation. For example, a random sample of 40 members of the “Existential Risk” group on Facebook (of which I am an active member) included only 3 women. Similar asymmetries can be found in many of the top research institutions working on global challenges.

This dearth of female scholars constitutes an existential emergency. If the studies above are correct, then the groups working on existential risk issues are not nearly as intelligent as they could be.

The obvious next question is: How can the existential risk community rectify this potentially dangerous situation? Some answers are implicit in the data above: for example, men could make sure that women have a voice in conversations, aren’t interrupted, and don’t get pushed to the sidelines in conversations monopolized by men.

Leaders of existential risk studies should also strive to ensure that women are adequately represented at conferences, that their work is promoted to the same extent as men’s, and that the environments in which existential risk scholarship takes place is free of discrimination. Other factors that have been linked to women avoiding certain fields include the absence of visible role models, the pernicious influence of gender stereotypes, the onerous demands of childcare, a lack of encouragement, and the statistical preference of women for professions that focus on “people” rather than “things.”

No doubt there are other factors not mentioned, and other strategies that could be identified. What can those of us already ensconced in the field do to achieve greater balance? What changes can the community make to foster more diversity? How can we most effectively maximize the collective intelligence of teams working on existential risks?

As Sir Martin Rees writes in Our Final Hour, “what happens here on Earth, in this century, could conceivably make the difference between a near eternity filled with ever more complex and subtle forms of life and one filled with nothing but base matter.” Future generations may very well thank us for taking the link between collective intelligence and female participation seriously.

Note: there’s obviously a moral argument for ensuring that women have equal opportunities, get paid the same amount as men, and don’t have to endure workplace discrimination. The point of this article is to show that even if one brackets moral considerations, there are still compelling reasons for making the field more diverse. (For more , see chapter 14 of my book, which  lays out a similar argument.