Are Two Heads Really Better Than One?

How do you think the best achievements are obtained, working individually or collaborating side by side with other colleagues? Science tells us that, although working together encourages ingenuity, there's always an exception to this rule.
Are Two Heads Really Better Than One?

Written by Valeria Sabater

Last update: 26 October, 2022

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. Batman and Robin. Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. The worlds of literature, cinema, and tv have often portrayed that two heads are better than one. It seems that teamwork is a virtue that allows us to emerge victorious from any difficult situation.

However, is there any truth in this idea? Is it really that advantageous to bring together several minds on a daily basis to solve problems and develop more innovative ideas? As a matter of fact, science has shown that group intelligence has great benefits. It allows us to give each other feedback to shape more ingenious proposals and solutions.

That said, group work isn’t always easy. In fact, sometimes, it even hinders productivity due to the existence of opposing criteria and personalities. Furthermore, not everyone performs optimally in a company, preferring to work alone.

Throughout history, the remarkable benefit of group collaborations to obtain remarkable advances and discoveries has been demonstrated.

Workers talking about which two people think better
Sometimes, personality factors make teamwork difficult.

Are two heads really better than one?

It can’t be denied that there are many cases in which two heads are better than one. For instance, think of the couples who’ve won Nobel Prizes by joining their efforts and ideas together. One good example was the couple, Pierre and Marie Curie.

Also notable were the joint works of George Braque and Pablo Picasso in the world of art, and the writers, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. In fact, in the fields of physiology, medicine, economics, and engineering, society has advanced thanks to the joint collaboration of groups of people who reasoned, investigated, and worked together.

However, does this mean that the strength of a group is synonymous with success and absolute advantage? The answer is no. There must be multiple factors for several minds to achieve excellence and be truly productive. Research conducted by Carnegie Mellon University (USA) claims that to be successful, collective intelligence depends on several elements. We’re going to talk about them here.

When making decisions, it’s always more beneficial to have other perspectives. It means we can elucidate better strategies for the same challenge.

People skills and competencies

Have you ever had to carry out a project with one or more people with doubtful skills? It’s a common occurrence. Technical and soft skills are key for a team to be effective. In other words, two heads are better than one if both people master the subject they’re working on and, moreover, are in tune with each other.

On the other hand, it’s useless having a brilliant partner if you can’t communicate with them. Indeed, the personalities of the members of a group are extremely important if there’s to be synchrony between them. Therefore, factors such as pride, arrogance, individualism, and the need to compete often ruin the ability to achieve high goals as a group.

The rules that govern the working group

Every social group made up of two or more people needs basic rules of interaction to achieve the set objectives. This is an aspect that’s often neglected. Therefore, even if you intend to carry out a project with a friend or family member, it’s essential that you define clear rules and interaction guidelines.

This will allow you, among other things, to be able to distribute the tasks equitably. Also to decide work times, resources, and the timescale for the achievement of each goal. If you don’t agree on basic rules and a clear strategy, only improvisation and chaos will reign.

image to symbolize that two people think better
Collective intelligence allows us to work side by side with other people and obtain greater achievements than if we worked alone.

When mutual collaboration isn’t successful

Evidence shows that, on average, two heads are better than one. It means a greater number of ideas are contributed, and minds are challenged, enriched, and motivated mutually. Indeed, nothing is as stimulating as having several visions of the same concept, thus providing the most varied synergies to the same objective.

Both large and small companies are aware of this fact and it’s common for them to dynamize groups, and enable people to learn how to carry out their work together as opposed to individually. However, the problem is that there are times when two, three, or even five minds don’t think better in a unified way. In fact, some circumstances hinder this end.

The Dunning-Kruger effect: putting together a group of incompetents

The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when an incompetent person overestimates their abilities and assumes that their skills are above average. Let’s look at what this might mean when there are two or more individuals with this profile in a work team.

Incompetence and social laziness are elements that appear in many work teams. In fact, there only needs to be one person with this kind of profile for the rest of the team to feel hindered.

Two heads are better than one if the approaches are mutually enriching

Sometimes, in work groups, members develop a kind of thinking that’s too homogeneous and similar. In this case, we’re not talking about incompetent people, but about individuals who, either because of their affinity or their desire to please others, avoid contradicting them. Consequently, their contributions cease to be so ingenious.

When they only seek consensus and stop inspiring and challenging each other, their thinking is no longer innovative. This is undoubtedly another danger that must be considered by organizations. Including people with different visions, but capable of reaching agreements, always provides a greater advantage to a company.

To conclude, both the present and the future require that we know how to combine our synergies, ingenuity, and skills to face common challenges. For this reason, knowing how to work in a group is essential and is something which we should all try to improve.

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  • David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).
  • Woolley, A. W., Aggarwal, I., & Malone, T. W. (2015). Collective Intelligence and Group Performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(6), 420–424.