How long and boring meetings diminish brainpower


BUSINESS LIFE: THE OTHER day I went out to lunch with a businessman whom I rather admire. A fly on the wall might have deemed the occasion a success: the conversational ball was batted back and forth easily enough. Yet for me, it wasn’t so good.

The problem wasn’t my host, who was clever and charming. Instead it was me: I chewed my way through three courses feeling a dullard.

It turns out that there is a scientific basis for what was happening inside my head. It’s not just that I felt a dullard; I actually became one. Indeed, had I been given an IQ test while munching my halibut, the score would have been considerably lower than it would have been earlier that morning.

This insight comes from researchers at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, who have proved that we are less intelligent in groups than on our own. When we are with others who we think are cleverer than us, we respond by becoming even more stupid than we are normally.

The researchers got 70 students together and tested their IQs (all of which were quite high, as it happens) in normal fashion. Then they put them in small groups and gave them another test, telling them between each question how they were faring relative to others in the group. They found that all the students’ scores were lower in the group test than in the individual one, but the IQs of the poorer performers were sharply lower. Those whose IQs fell the most were mainly – surprise, surprise – female.

As an aside, this doesn’t bode terribly well for the new women joining company boards. They already have the cards stacked against them by being less experienced and less well qualified than most of their male colleagues – and now it seems that their IQs are likely to plummet on entering the meeting room.

Still, the more cheering point is what the research proves about meetings in general. Businesspeople have long joked that meetings make them brain-dead, so it is nice to find a group of scientists in white coats telling us that it is actually so. What I would now like is for them to do further research to put more nails in the meetings coffin.

In particular it would be nice if someone could prove something else which has long seemed obvious to me: that boredom reduces IQ. My own personal experiments on this seem entirely conclusive: at the end of a very long and boring meeting I am so stupid that I am good for nothing. Even a game of Paper Toss on my iPad seems a bit intellectually demanding.

Alas, I can’t find anything much online to prove this thesis, although I did find reference to a study showing that bored dogs spend a lot of time chewing their cages or themselves. This seems a pretty stupid thing to do, even for a dog.

Also useful would be to find out whether looking at PowerPoint slides reduces IQ. Again, personal experience shows it most definitely does but it would be helpful to have the data to prove it.

In fact the only decent academic study that I can find on how conditions at meetings can diminish brain power is a somewhat unexpected one. It is a paper that was given one of last year’s Ig Nobel Prizes (handed out for research “that makes people laugh – then think”). Its title: The effect of acute increase in urge to void on cognitive function in healthy adults. Or, to put it more urgently, how the need to pee affects our brains.

The upshot seems to be that if you are sitting (as one so often is in a very long meeting) with legs tightly crossed, praying for the next “comfort break”, then the speed at which you process information slows to a crawl.

Whether from needing to pee, from being bored, from PowerPoint or from being put off by others, meetings mess with our minds. There is only one answer, and it is a starkly obvious one: companies should stop their long love affair with teamwork and endless meetings and force people to spend more time working alone instead.

I remember once swapping jobs for a day with a woman who worked in the human resources department of Microsoft. I couldn’t believe the jargon at her place; she couldn’t believe the productivity at mine. I explained that there is a reason that journalists get a lot done. If you have a newspaper to produce every night, you have little time for meetings and must instead opt for an old-fashioned but copper-bottomed way of getting things done: sitting alone at your desk, getting your head down and cracking on with it. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012)