Do meetings really lower IQ?

I attend a lot of meetings; that’s the nature of my job.

This morning the Dean came in and waved the front section of the Herald under my nose. "Look," he said, "all those meetings are really bad for you." Scenting a way of getting out of them, I grabbed the paper and found the article in question (syndicated from the UK paper, The Telegraph).

"Attending meetings lowers your IQ," cried the headline, and the article goes on to say that

[the] performance of people in IQ tests after meetings is significantly lower than if they are left on their own, with women more likely to perform worse than men.

The story’s based on a press release about research carried out at Virginia Tech’s Carilion Institute. And this showed that the research outcomes were more nuanced and more complex than the newspaper story would have it.

Research led by scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute found that small-group dynamics — such as jury deliberations, collective bargaining sessions, and cocktail parties — can alter the expression of IQ in some susceptible people (Kishida et al. 2012). 

In other words, meetings don’t necessarily lower your baseline IQ. What they may do is change how you express that IQ, particularly if you’re susceptible to peer pressure. The internal urge to conform can result in people making decisions as part of a group that they might not have made on their own, especially if they have concerns about their status in that group. (As the Virginia Tech release notes, this was shown to good effect in the superb film 12 Angry Men, with Henry Fonda leading a stellar cast.)

The researchers placed study participants in groups of five and studied their brain activity (using MRI scans) while the groups were engaged in various tasks.

While the groups were working they were also given information about the intellectual status of group members, based on their relative performance on those cognitive tasks. (There’s a tendency for people to place great store on relative measures of IQ, and where they personally sit on the scale.)

And afterwards, when participants were divided on their basis of their performance into high and low-performing groups before their IQs were measured again, they were found to differ quite significantly despite the fact that all participants had statistically similar baseline IQs when tested at the beginning of the study. 

Our results suggest that individuals express diminished cognitive capacity in small groups, an effect that is exacerbated by perceived lower status within the group and correlated with specific neurobehavioural responses. The impact these reactions have on intergroup divisions and conflict resolution requires further investigation, but suggests that low-status groups may develop diminished capacity to mitigate conflict using non-violent means.

As I said, this is altogether more nuanced, more complex, and much more interesting than the news story that caught the boss’s eye.

I suspect I’ll be attending meetings for a while yet.

This post originally appeared on Sciblogs.

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