We are all social beings. The quality of our interactions in society affects our quality of life. The stronger social connections one forms, the happier they seem to be. Social Intelligence can lead to a socially stronger and less stressful society. 

Intelligence is of many types. However, unlike IQ (that measures mainly cognitive abilities), our interactions in society can be measured using Social Intelligence. Social Intelligence refers to a person’s ability to be able to accurately read behaviors, understand emotions, and function appropriately in a social setting.

Social Intelligence (2006), penned by Daniel Goleman discusses the concept of Social Intelligence – an intelligence that is not measurable yet is crucial for everyone. It is the ability to understand others to create supportive, deep, and emotional bonds. It helps us lead more fulfilling lives and foster healthy social bonds.

One needs to understand the factors that affect social intelligence to develop and nurture it and to relate to others’ behaviour.

1. The Importance of Empathy

Empathy refers to one’s ability to read how people feel and why they feel that way. It also refers to one’s capacity to understand oneself in a social context. Empathy helps us understand how to appropriately respond by gauging what the other person is thinking during an interaction. It is essential not only while interacting with strangers, but also while interacting with people close to us. Studies have shown that people who show empathy towards their partners have successful relationships.

Social Intelligence By Daniel Goleman

William Ickes, a psychologist at the University of Texas conducted an experiment with two participants who were asked to attend a meeting. They were them asked to review the recording of the meeting and try to infer what the opposite person was thinking during key moments.

One of the participants correctly guessed that the second participant looked and was feeling embarrassed during the conversation when she could not remember her teacher’s name. Another instance during the same conversation, the lady had zoned out. The other participant thought that she was thinking if she would be asked out on a date. However, she was thinking about a play she had seen. This demonstrated that everyone has a different level of empathetic ability.

2. Paying Attention Is A Challenge 

In any social interaction, paying attention to the other person is vital. People often find it difficult to pay attention to others. Additionally, differences among people with respect to customs and beliefs also differ from culture to culture.

Japanese psychologist Takeo Doi noticed these differences in attention to detail and differences in culture when he visited the United States. On the day he arrived at the house he was staying, the family asked him if he was hungry. Though he was, he politely declined and went hungry.

He explained the differences in culture starting that in Japan, a guest’s needs would have been felt rather than asked, and due to the differences in culture, the Japanese would have been more attentive to a guest’s needs and food would have been offered without asking.

3. The Neuroscience Behind It

Our social abilities are also influenced by (yet not determined by) the ways our brain is wired. The neural circuitry and the amygdala play an important role in triggering the sensory cortex that is responsible for the response to stimuli.

An experiment conducted by Jerome Kagan, a Harvard psychologist studied reactions of babies to unexpected and unknown stimuli in the form of toys and linked them to later development in a social context.

He found that the children that showed negative reactions (and additionally protected by parents) were prone to shyness and timidity in later life. His research also concluded that shy and timid behavior in social context can be reduced by practicing more social interactions.

4. The Fear Factor

Some amount of fear is actually beneficial for emotional development. People who have been exposed to healthy doses of fear in their early life tend to be more adventurous. 

Psychologist Karen Parker showed this by experimenting with squirrel monkeys. She regularly exposed 17-week-old monkeys to unknown monkeys in a cage. After they had been weaned, she moved them to a new cage with hidden places, nooks, and crannies filled with treats. She observed that the monkeys who had been exposed to unfamiliar monkeys earlier were the ones with an adventurous streak and willingness to explore the cage further, than the other monkeys who clung to their mothers.

It is essential, however, that the exposure to fear must be within limits of tolerance. Too many scary experiences at a young age will drive people to be timid later on.

5. The Effect of Testosterone On Empathy

A lack of social intelligence is triggered by a lack of empathy. Furthermore, a lack of empathy is related to narcissism and the effects of the hormone testosterone on social intelligence, especially in males. Fuelled by the hormone some males even tend to resort to sexual violence.

For example, a study conducted by psychologist Brad Bushman in 2003, showed that narcissistic men were more inclined to believe that rape victims “called for trouble” and that when a woman says ‘no’, she actually means ‘yes’.

Though it is not a conclusive outcome, it showed that testosterone to some degree affected social intelligence and the empathy.

6. The Impact of Stress

Practicing social interaction can prove to be stressful. Moreover, any form of stress can result in not only lower levels of social interactions but also in lower levels of immunity.

This is evident in a study by psychologist Janise Kiecolt-Glaser and immunologist Ronald Glaser in 1998. They saw a correlation between the declining health of caregivers and the daily stress of managing people suffering from chronic diseases.

However, whether the caregiver is a family member or a professional caregiver, one sure way to reduce the impact on health is to ensure a sound social support system. Such social support can help reduce the burden of caregiving, and eventually, reduce levels of stress.

7. Tackling Stigmas

It is a known fact that positive social interaction can speed up recovery from illness. When it comes to boosting recovery and health, healthy social interactions can make a positive impact on the caregiver as well as the patient.

However, the stigmas associated with illness can push a patient deeper into withdrawal making recovery more difficult. It is a vicious cycle that can be broken by ensuring that an ill person is surrounded by family and friends and has access to a healthy social network during their illness.

A study conducted by Brooks Gump and James Kulik in 1997, confirmed the theory and added that emotions are contagious and are reinforced, affecting behaviors.

8. Disability Or A Lack of Empathy

Children with learning disabilities are often neglected as poor performers when in turn, they only need a little show of social empathy and attention. 

An example can be seen in the social and academic transformation of a schoolgirl – Maeva – who was labeled as a difficult child to one of the author’s friends who was a New York schoolteacher. The teacher provided the child with extra emotional support and paid attention to the emotional needs of the child.

Social intelligence is an essential trait for those in learning and development environments and does wonders for socially challenged children.

Key Message

Daniel Goleman explains that Social intelligence is crucial for everyone and is needed in all walks of life. It helps in leading healthy fulfilled lives and promotes forging stronger bonds and relationships with the people who surround us. It helps in building stronger personalities and can lead to a happier and more successful life.