Optimizing competence in the service of collaboration

Yang Xiang, Natalia Vélez, Samuel J. Gershman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In order to efficiently divide labor with others, it is important to understand what our collaborators can do (i.e., their competence). However, competence is not static—people get better at particular jobs the more often they perform them. This plasticity of competence creates a challenge for collaboration: For example, is it better to assign tasks to whoever is most competent now, or to the person who can be trained most efficiently “on-the-job”? We conducted four experiments (N=396) that examine how people make decisions about whom to train (Experiments 1 and 3) and whom to recruit (Experiments 2 and 4) to a collaborative task, based on the simulated collaborators’ starting expertise, the training opportunities available, and the goal of the task. We found that participants’ decisions were best captured by a planning model that attempts to maximize the returns from collaboration while minimizing the costs of hiring and training individual collaborators. This planning model outperformed alternative models that based these decisions on the agents’ current competence, or on how much agents stood to improve in a single training step, without considering whether this training would enable agents to succeed at the task in the long run. Our findings suggest that people do not recruit and train collaborators based solely on their current competence, nor solely on the opportunities for their collaborators to improve. Instead, people use an intuitive theory of competence to balance the costs of hiring and training others against the benefits to the collaboration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number101653
JournalCognitive Psychology
StatePublished - May 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


  • Collaboration
  • Competence
  • Planning
  • Plasticity
  • Social cognition
  • Teaching
  • Training


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