Collective Problem Solving in Networks

Winter Mason

Facebook; Stevens Institute of Technology - School of Business

Duncan J. Watts

Yahoo! Research Labs

January 19, 2011

Many complex problems in science, business, and engineering require a trade-off between exploitation of known solutions and exploration of new possibilities. When complex problems are solved by collectives rather than individuals, this explore-exploit trade-off is complicated by the presence of communication networks, which can accelerate collective learning, but can also lead to convergence on suboptimal solutions. In this paper, we report on a series of 195 web-based experiments in which groups of 16 individuals collectively solved a complex problem and shared information through different communication networks. We found that network structure affected collective performance indirectly, via its impact on individual search strategies, as well as directly, by impacting the speed of information diffusion. We also found that networks in general suppress individual exploration, but greatly amplify the benefits of the exploration that takes place. Finally, we identified two ways in which individual and collective performance were in tension, consistent with longstanding theoretical claims.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 30

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Date posted: March 29, 2011  

Suggested Citation

Mason, Winter and Watts, Duncan J., Collective Problem Solving in Networks (January 19, 2011). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1795224 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1795224

Contact Information

Winter Mason (Contact Author)
Facebook ( email )
1601 S. California Ave.
Palo Alto, CA 94304
United States
Stevens Institute of Technology - School of Business ( email )
Hoboken, NJ 07030
United States

Duncan J. Watts
Yahoo! Research Labs ( email )
Pasadena, CA 91103
United States
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