Social Intelligence

March 7th, 2010 by Collin Canright | Filed under Philosophy.

The term “social intelligence” refers to an emerging science, rooted in current research in neuroscience, on the social underpinnings of the human brain. Beginning in the late 20th and with a dramatic increase in speed and precision resulting from technological improvements in the 21st century, neuroscience researchers have been validating the intuitive insights and theories of earlier writers and researchers.

In particular, neuroscience has started to describe how the brain is wired for emotion and connection between people. This post is the first in a series of posts on social intelligence and group dynamics, written as part of my studies at the Wright Graduate Institute for the Realization of Human Potential.

Daniel Goleman published the groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence in 1995. Since then, neuroscience research has progressed to show that not only does the human brain have an innate capacity to manage emotions in order to realize the potential of relationships, but it also has an innate capacity—required for survival—to connect.

His latest book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (Goleman, 2006), describes “social neuroscience,” the field originated in the early 1990s with initial studies one person influences the neurochemistry of another. Aided by the tools of 21st century neuroscience, scientists can now reliably study how “the brain drives social behavior and in turn how our social world influences our brain and biology” (Goleman, 2006, p. 10). Goleman calls it “the sociable brain.” The very design of the human brain makes it sociable, “inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whever we engage with another person.” In short, he wrote, “we are wired to connect” (Goleman 2006, p. 4).

Social intelligence and its basis in social neuroscience has wide ranging influences on group dynamics, given it shows how people are essentially designed to connect with one another. One of the initial influences that Goleman explores is “emotional contagion.” It’s really common sense that strong emotions in one person influence the emotions of the people around them. If someone is in a “bad mood” in an office, that “mood” will affect everyone else, especially if the person in a “bad mood” happens to be the boss or other influential person in the group.

Key to the neurodynamics of groups is what Goleman terms the “low road” and the “high road.” The “low road” refers to the part of the brain that responds quickly and largely unconsciously. This part of the brain is scanning the environment—including the emotional environment—for threats to the person.

Driven by the more primitive brain structure called the “amygdala,” the brain’s radar, the low road is “contagion central,” as Goleman puts it. Low road circuitry operates quickly, automatically, and below awareness. An emotion from one person in a group can quickly spread—or infect, depending on the point of view—throughout an entire group.

It takes “high road” awareness to counteract an initial “low road” response. The “high road” is the brain’s rational, executive center, the “prefrontal cortex,” the part of the brain that “contains our capacity for intentionality” and the give us the ability to “thin about what’s happening to us” (Goleman, 2006, p. 17). The high road works more methodically and step by step and “gives us at least some control over our inner life” (Goleman, 2006, p. 16).

This ability of people to influence one another affects how people in a group work together and the decisions they make. It can lead to greater closeness and cooperation, on the one hand, or the “madness of crowds,” on the other.  As Goleman writes:

Crowd contagion goes on even in the most minimal of groups, three people sitting face to face with each other in silence for a few minutes. In the absence of a power hierarchy, the person with the most emotionally expressive face will set the shared tone (Goleman, 2006, p. 48).

More to come. . .


Share Your Thoughts