The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Collective Intelligence and Differentiation of Self

Authored by Stephanie Ferrera, M.S.W.

Why do humans dominate the planet?  Not, as often assumed, because of individual intelligence according to science writer, Matt Ridley.  Not because we have big brains.  Having smarter, cleverer people is not what makes societies work better.  He proposes that

“Human achievement is entirely a networking phenomenon.  It is by putting brains together through the division of labor — through trade and specialization — that human society stumbled upon a way to raise the living standards, carrying capacity, technological virtuosity and knowledge base of the species. …Human achievement is based on collective intelligence–the nodes in the human neural network are people themselves.  By each doing one thing and getting good at it, then sharing and combining the results through exchange, people become capable of doing things they do not even understand.”  (Ridley 2011, italics in original)

Ridley notes that Adam Smith understood this phenomenon, and so did Charles Darwin.  I believe that Murray Bowen understood it very well, and took it a step further.  The concept of collective intelligence becomes all the more intriguing when you put it in the context of Bowen’s concepts of the emotional system and differentiation of self.

Dr. Bowen used the term, “collection of individuals,” to describe a high-functioning organization.  This collection of people looks like a group, but functions differently.  In a group, emotional process is operating to greater or lesser degree, and emotional process will always do somebody in, or if it gets intense enough, will do in the whole operation.  Thus groups are vulnerable to disruption or disintegration.  In contrast, a collection of individuals is relatively free of emotional reactivity, and thus free to support individual functioning, to spur each member to go further than he or she might go alone.  The difference between a group and a collection of individuals is understood in terms of the balance of togetherness and individuality, which in turn is understood as a result of the level of anxiety and the level of differentiation of the members.   The difference can be described along a continuum:


Togetherness overrides individuality – Togetherness/individuality balance

Tension level high – Tension level low

Lower level of differentiation – Higher level of differentiation

The “group” end of the continuum is what people often recognize as their organization.  The combination of togetherness pressure and emotional reactivity plays out in a thousand ways:  focus on others, comparing self with others, status sensitivity, low tolerance for differences, avoidance of subjects that risk conflict, or escalating disagreement into conflict, pressure on leaders to take charge but undermining them when they do.  In a climate of tension, thinking, planning, finding common ground, maintaining a focus on goals, and working collaboratively are compromised.  Emotional intensity is like a tax on the resources of the group; it can take a group to a state of collective chaos or collective collapse, the antithesis of collective intelligence.

The “collection of individuals” end of the continuum is what people often recognize as what they would like their organization to be:  calm, flexible, with a defined mission, focus on goals, and a climate of thoughtful collaboration.  The staggering accomplishments of human civilizations give witness to the fact that humans have risen to this level of functioning many times.  I submit that this does not happen without considerable effort and perhaps only under reasonably favorable conditions.

Dr. Bowen founded the Family Center at Georgetown University in 1975 and headed it until his death in 1990.  He was well aware of the pitfalls that could undermine the Center:

“This is the kind of an administrative system that is most vulnerable to becoming involved in all kinds of emotional alliances and intense emotional processes that would make it more like a family. A good percentage of such organizations do not continue for many months or years before there are major splits and disruptions in the central organization.”

He used his knowledge and experience from family research, theory, and the practice of family therapy to provide the kind of differentiated leadership he believed in:

“It has been a fascinating challenge to me to find a way toward a reasonable level of differentiation among professional colleagues, who are far more important to me than most employees would be in other situations. …The goal is to be as much of a ‘self’ as is possible for me, and to permit the others as much latitude as possible toward developing their selfs.” (1978, 462)

Matt Ridley’s wonderful essay on collective intelligence resonates with the concept of differentiation of self.  The level of differentiation of self of the members of the collective, and their efforts to work on functioning at their best, joined with the specialized knowledge and quality of thinking that each brings to the mission, unleashes human capital and allows the powerful potential of collective intelligence to be realized.

Ridley concludes that complex tasks are beyond what a single person can do; the knowledge needed for the task is distributed in society among many people.  “That is why central planning never worked; the cleverest person is no match for the collective brain at working out (how to get things done).”  Going a step further with this thinking, we also see that the functioning of its individual components–“the nodes in the human neural network”–would have everything to do with the functioning of the collective brain.  Better differentiated “nodes” are a decisive variable in the ability of the collective brain to function productively, effectively, and creatively.



Bowen, M.(1978) Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, New York, Jason Aronson

Ridley, M.(2011) Collective Intelligence on the Edge,


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