Two are not always better than one: Role specialization is an important determinant of collaborative task performance
Collaboration frequently yields better results in decision making, learning, and haptic interactions than when these actions are performed individually. However, is collaboration always superior to solo actions, or do its benefits depend on whether collaborating individuals have different or the same roles? To answer this question, we asked human subjects to perform virtual-reality collaborative and individual beam transportation tasks. These tasks were simulated in real-time by coupling the motion of a pair of hand-held robotic manipulanda to the virtual beam using virtual spring-dampers. For the task to be considered successful, participants had to complete it within temporal and spatial constraints. While the visual feedback remained the same, the underlying dynamics of the beam were altered to create two distinctive task contexts which were determined by a moving pivot constraint. When the pivot was placed at the center of the beam, two hands contribute to the task with symmetric mechanical leverage (symmetric context). When the pivot was placed at the left side of the beam, two hands contribute to the task with asymmetric mechanical leverage (asymmetric context). Participants performed these task contexts either individually with both hands (solo), or collaboratively by pairing one hand with another one (dyads). We found that dyads in the asymmetric context performed better than solos. In contrast, solos performed the symmetric context better than dyads. Importantly, we found that two hands took different roles in the asymmetric context for both solos and dyads. In contrast, the contribution from each hand was statistically indistinguishable in the symmetric context. Our findings suggest that better performance in dyads than solos is not a general phenomenon, but rather that collaboration yields better performance only when role specialization emerges in dyadic interactions.