Collective Problem Solving in Networks

30 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2011

See all articles by Winter Mason

Winter Mason

Facebook; Stevens Institute of Technology - School of Business

Duncan Watts

University of Pennsylvania

Date Written: 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.

Suggested Citation

Mason, Winter and Watts, Duncan, Collective Problem Solving in Networks (January 19, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

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 Watts

University of Pennsylvania ( email )

Philadelphia, PA
United States
2155733240 (Phone)
19104-6228 (Fax)

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics