How Do You Measure People Skills?

The elusive landscape of social intelligence.

Going to school in England during the 1950s, I came to accept the idea that intellectual ability is pretty much all of one piece—you have a lot or you have a little. In fact, the entire United Kingdom school system reinforced that way of thinking. At the age of 11, all children in state primary schools sat the so-called 11+ exam, and we were allocated to different secondary schools depending on whether we “passed” or “failed.” Three decades later, Howard Gardner presented a persuasive case for intellectual multiplicity in his book Frames of Mind. He argued against the central idea that we English schoolchildren had been measured by—the concept of g, a general factor pervading all aspects of intelligence. Instead, Gardner proposed a set of seven relatively distinct intelligences. Individuals, he claimed, show peaks and valleys across those seven domains. Mathematical prodigies might display low interpersonal intelligence; the mathematically challenged might have high verbal ability; and students with modest mathematical and verbal abilities might nonetheless show extraordinary musical talent. Many educators were convinced by Gardner’s neuropsychological evidence showing that parts of the brain specialize in different domains—spatial, verbal, musical, and so on—and also by the compelling case studies of individuals with obvious gifts in one domain and poor functioning in others. Yet, despite its success and influence in the field of education, Gardner’s message did not achieve much traction in the wider world.

In 1995, Daniel Goleman, a Harvard-educated psychologist and a science writer for the New York Times, took up Gardner’s emphasis on mental specialization. Unlike Gardner, however, he insisted that traditional measures of intelligence, whether conceived as a unified trait or divided by seven, do not pay enough attention to the critical role of emotion. Because of the focus in education from kindergarten through graduate school on purely cognitive intelligence—whether verbal, mathematical, spatial, or logical—the study and nurturance of emotional intelligence, he argued, has been neglected. Goleman’s focus on emotion, and its pivotal role in success outside the classroom, had an enormous appeal—and well beyond educational circles. Emotional Intelligence was on the best-seller list for a year and a half, sold more than 5 million copies, and introduced the term EQ into common parlance.

Goleman’s new book, Social Intelligence, has two themes. First, he situates emotional intelligence much more explicitly in the context of interpersonal relations. If the hallmark of the emotionally intelligent is awareness and regulation of the self, the hallmark of the socially intelligent is awareness of, and sensitivity toward, other people. Second, he ties his proposals concerning social intelligence to the burgeoning field of social neuroscience. Gardner drew primarily on findings from brain damage—noting, for example, what happens to a person with damage to the left, as compared to the right, hemisphere. Three decades later, Goleman is able to draw on the recent explosion of “imaging” studies in the field of social neuroscience. The various parts of an intact brain are monitored while their owner, temporarily entombed in a scanner, is presented with emotionally charged inputs. Goleman is keen to draw implications from data that are, for the time being, suggestive rather than definite. Still, in his efforts to bring order to a dizzying array of evidence, he deserves credit for being comprehensive and well-informed about emerging trends.

The emotional lives of human beings are a complicated mixture of rapidly elicited, semiconscious reactions to interpersonal signals and a slower, more articulate reflection on what we feel, how we felt earlier, and the appropriateness of those feelings. Goleman proposes two relatively distinct brain pathways to explain this mix: a “low road” for the rapid processing of interpersonal signals, be they cries of distress, flirtatious smiles, or the clasp of a comforting hand; and a “high road” that permits a more reflective awareness, communication, and regulation of our emotional experience.

Goleman argues that low-road emotional signals, when transmitted repeatedly between two people, effectively set up a “brain-to-brain” link that acts as a double-edged sword. Emotionally positive signals between two people have beneficial effects on their respective health and welfare, whereas sustained negative signals have a toxic effect. These positive and negative effects are also transmitted across generations. When antagonistic parents express contempt for one another, they are likely to have children who find it difficult to negotiate peer relationships. When couples display more warmth and empathy during disagreements, they are likely to have children with better social skills. Goleman emphasizes that the low-road system typically operates on nonverbal emotional signals and is relatively automatic, fast acting, and largely unconscious. It is a universal mode of communication that emerges early in life, as babies burble in response to smiles and fret when confronted by an angry face.

The high road, as Goleman construes it, involves a distinct set of neural processes that permit the reworking of emotion on another plane. In the course of development, we start to be aware of our feelings; we acquire the ability to put those conscious feelings into words; and we are increasingly able to exercise some control over the expression, duration, and intensity of our emotions. We also end up with a working theory of the psychology of emotion that goes beneath and beyond the decoding and transmission of nonverbal signals. We realize, for example, that the emotion that someone displays on his face may not correspond to how he really feels. We also realize that he may feel several conflicting emotions at the same time, and we reckon with the fact that whatever emotion he may be expressing—or masking—right now, it will almost certainly dissipate as time passes. It seems unlikely that any other species has this capacity for psychological insight and reflection. Certainly, no other species voices an apology or says, “I love you.”

Goleman’s distinction between the low road and the high road provides a useful metaphor for synthesizing and organizing a large body of research. Still, the alleged existence of those two neural pathways creates a major problem for his central theme: the nature and functioning of social intelligence. The difficulty is in deciding how exactly to measure and combine low- and high-road skills. One solution might be to say that social intelligence is just general intelligence—as measured by the traditional IQ test—plus the type of low-road skills that Goleman emphasizes with respect to the rapid, intuitive processing of nonverbal interpersonal signals. However, that solution will not work. In his book Descartes’ Error, neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio describes the plight of patients with damage to the prefrontal cortex—a brain area that is critical to the reflective, high-road skills. Such patients are notorious for their difficulties in interpersonal relationships—they are likely to be insensitive in social situations and emotionally volatile. In many ways, they lack social intelligence. At the same time, these patients can perform well on standard measures of IQ.

A different tack—one that corresponds to Goleman’s own position—is to think of social intelligence as a combination of low-road and high-road skills, with each set being distinct from IQ as ordinarily measured. Yet, it looks like wishful thinking on Goleman’s part to group these two sets of skills together. He provides no evidence that they correlate. Intuitively, there seem to be obvious, everyday examples of their separation. The friend who is poor at managing his or her long-term social relationships may still be someone who is remarkably attuned to our current feelings. Babies may be exquisitely sensitive to the shifting moods of their caregivers from the earliest months, but that sensitivity is no guarantee of mature emotional and interpersonal functioning in later life. So, in the end, Goleman’s book falls victim to its own dissecting logic. Once we start multiplying intelligence, how do we know when to stop, and how do we put things back together?