How Does Group Size Influence Problem-Solving?

Small group solving a problem
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When it comes to solving problems, are two (or more) heads really better than one? Solving problems on your own can have its own strengths and weaknesses, but what influence does group size have on the process?

Learn more about some of the research on group problem solving, including how the size of the group may influence problem-solving effectiveness.

Group Vs. Solo Problem Solving

Whether or not a problem is best solved individually or as a group can depend on the situation, but research suggests that small groups do better than even the best-performing individuals.

One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked at the effects of group size on problem-solving. Researchers compared the problem-solving performance of small groups to that of individuals working alone. 

The findings suggested that groups of three to five people perform better than individuals when solving complex problems. Small groups were able to solve difficult problems better than even the best individuals working alone.

The findings may be useful in academics, where problem-solving groups might serve as an effective learning tool. Groups and teams in science, health care, and business may also find these techniques useful as well.

Why Groups May Do Better

So what is it that makes small groups of three, four, and five people more effective at solving difficult problems? Some factors that might play a role:

  • Small groups allow people to generate more ideas.
  • Small groups are better able to work quickly through options to find the best solutions.
  • Small groups are able to process information faster than individuals.
  • By working together, groups can rapidly reject incorrect responses until they find the right answer.

Working as a group may also foster success because each individual offers unique abilities. Individual contributions from group members can fill in any gaps in ability or knowledge that others may lack.

Interestingly, two heads might not actually be any better than just one. The study revealed that two people working together performed at approximately the same level as individuals.

Also, while groups of three, four, and five people performed significantly better than an equivalent number of "best individual" and two-person groups, the groups of three, four, and five were equivalent in performance.

This suggests that problem solving requires a small group of three to achieve the benefits of group performances.

When to Use Groups

Such findings have important implications in fields such as academics, science, medicine, and business. In such settings, groups of three may be more efficient and more accurate at solving moderately difficult problems that require the use of logic, verbal, and qualitative understanding.

Additional research has found that working on problems in small groups improves learning among undergraduate students when compared to students solving such problems individually.

It is important to note that further research is necessary to determine if three-person groups are more effective at solving other types of problems and whether effective problem-solving within a group then transfers to individual problem solving.

Educators and employers may find that putting people in small groups may lead to better problem solving results than having people work alone.

A Word From Verywell

If you are trying to solve a difficult problem, putting together a small group of three to five people may be the best approach. While "group work" often has a bad reputation, there are situations and problems that may actually benefit from the input of others.

If you have a problem to solve, consider how bringing in other people and working as a team might influence the outcome. The advantage of working with a group often comes from the shared ideas and being able to draw upon the experience and expertise of multiple individuals.

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  2. Stockwell BR, Stockwell MS, Jiang E. Group problem solving in class improves undergraduate learningACS Cent Sci. 2017;3(6):614-620. doi:10.1021/acscentsci.7b00133