Is it Possible to Be Less Intelligent In Group Settings? (Part 1)

The Public Speaker explains why sometimes our minds turn to mush in a group! Explore the research behind this phenomenon and learn tips to help you speak-up. 

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #225

group meetingHave you ever suddenly clammed up at meeting or at an event?  It’s happened to me a number of times and it really bothered me. I was somewhat relieved to read some recent research that explores the phenomenon of becoming “less intelligent” in group settings. In this two-part mini series we’ll take a closer look at the phenomenon and learn tips on what you can use to help alleviate the situation. .


My Mind Turns To Mush

I started thinking about this topic when a reader, Joe, wrote to me and described a situation where he was invited to be part of a conference panel.  He explained that normally he’s comfortable in meetings, but on this panel he felt uneasy participating.  Specifically it was difficult for him to carry a conversation with the other panel members. He said that the he had equal or perhaps even more technical experience than those on the panel, but he perceived the others to be of higher status because they worked at much larger organizations. He said although he knew his stuff, he found it difficult to speak-up. 

He wrote, “My mind was mush.  I even skipped the post-panel dinner to avoid the conversation.”  I could relate as I have experienced the same thing, particularly in social settings. I had stuff I wanted to say, but I just couldn’t find the words and sat there frozen, thinking about the fact that I wasn’t saying anything.

Study Confirms “Getting Dumber” in Group Settings

I read a Wall Street Journal article that referenced a Virginia Tech study that explored this phenomenon of “becoming dumber” in group situations. The article said what Joe and I experienced sometimes to both men and women, but more women.  The article also explained that it happens to those in the group on the upper end of the IQ range. Specifically, the study found that when subjects with a similar IQ were given questions to answer, most of them had an increased level of brain activity in the fear and emotion centers of the brain. This was due to an initial feeling of panic when they compared their performance to the others in the group, especially if they got an answer wrong.

The most revealing part of the study was how the subjects recovered once the initial feeling of nervousness passed. The subjects with the higher IQ could not recover well enough to improve their performance. In my own professional experience I have found there are other factors that influence how you perform in a group setting.

Are you a Social Butterfly or a Hermit?

Ever take those personality tests that tell you if you’re an introvert or an extrovert? Although I’ll admit most of them aren’t scientific, those silly quizzes can offer some insight.

By definition, an introvert is a person primarily a person who is energized by spending time alone. Introverts like to be in their homes, in libraries, or quiet places. Introverts like to think and be alone.

You may notice that after a certain time has passed, you’ve lost the energy to be communicative. You may have started out very impressively, then hit a wall. This could be because your energy level in a group setting has been tapped out and you’re ready to remove yourself from the dynamic.  

Finally, many people just simply say these are the shy ones, but not necessarily so. An introvert just may be more hesitant to “think out loud” like an extrovert would. And in a group setting, this could cause a person to stay silent and not be effective in communicating ideas. In fact, that’s why during meetings, an effective leader makes an effort to draw out information from those that are less inclined to volunteer their thoughts.

Where Do You Stand On The Social Ladder?

Does this mean extroverts have it made? Of course not. It turns out that while extroverts do well in groups and social situations, they may “choke” also, especially if they believe their superior is in the group.

Introvert or extrovert, or somewhere in between, you may feel inadequate if there is someone in your vicinity whom you view as your superior. This can occur in social situations as well. Even neighborhood barbeques can be a source of anxiety!

In the matter of position, extroverts can be intimidated if they are sizing up their superior and weighing their expertise against others in the group. So while they may do well in social situations, they may flounder in a business group setting.

Male vs. Female Does it Matter?

I found it interesting that the study mentioned that women tend to  “lose intelligence” more often then men. The study suggests this may be due to a woman’s natural awareness of others around them. Women just may be more emotionally in tune to others’ cues and reading their body language.

I suspect that this happens to everyone at one time or another. It’s important that we all are able to communicate in any setting.  So, in part two of this episode, I’ll share some tips for how to be more comfortable sharing your ideas in a small group setting. I can’t guarantee you’ll never feel awkward again, but I can help you plan ahead and move beyond that barrier so that you don’t miss out on important opportunities. 

This is Lisa B. Marshall, Helping you maximize sales, manage perceptions, and enhance leadership through keynotes, workshops, books, and online courses. Passionate about communication; your success is my business.

Do you struggle with difficult conversations?  Do you procrastinate when it comes to delivering feedback? Do you know how to effectively persuade and influence others?  Learn this and more in my book Smart Talk. Get your personally signed copy today!

Colleagues image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.