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Why Some People Become Temporarily Less Intelligent in Group Settings

Posted Feb 13, 2012 6:30 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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If you become tongue-tied or unable to contribute during group discussions, it could be because you believe others in the room are smarter.

That’s the conclusion that can be drawn from a study conducted by scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, report the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.), the Daily Mail Online and a press release.

The researchers found that small-group dynamics can change the expression of IQ in some susceptible people, the press release explains. The findings could apply to situations such as jury deliberations, collective bargaining and even cocktail parties.

The Wall Street Journal summarizes the experiment. Seventy people with similar intelligence were divided into groups of five. They answered test questions and saw how well they performed relative to the others. For two subjects in each group, functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to measure how the brain processed information about social status.

At first, the part of the brain that registers fear and processes emotion showed a spike in activity for all the brain scan subjects, according to the Wall Street Journal account. Thirteen test subjects eventually recovered, however, and ended up with scores close to baseline tests they had taken before learning of their ranking. Fourteen did not recover, and one didn’t complete the test.

Eleven of the 14 who didn’t measure up to expectations were women, while 10 of the 13 who recovered were men. Those with higher IQs also tended to underperform.

The researchers suspect that the low performers were more aware of group dynamics and evaluated themselves in relation to the others. Their findings were published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

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