Social Intelligence describes the exclusively human capacity to use very large brains to effectively navigate and negotiate complex social relationships and environments. Psychologist and professor at the London School of Economics Nicholas Humphrey believes it is social intelligence or the richness of our qualitative life, rather than our quantitative intelligence, that truly makes humans what they are – for example what it’s like to be a human being living at the center of the conscious present, surrounded by smells and tastes and feels and the sense of being an extraordinary metaphysical entity with properties which hardly seem to belong to the physical world.
At the Social Intelligence Lab Ross Honeywill and his team believe social intelligence is an aggregated measure of self and social awareness, evolved social beliefs and attitudes, and a capacity and appetite to manage complex social change. A person with a high social intelligence quotient (SQ) is no better or worse than someone with a low SQ, they just have different attitudes, hopes, interests and desires.
Social Intelligence Quotient (SQ)
The social intelligence quotient or SQ is a statistical abstraction similar to the ‘standard score’ approach used in IQ tests with a mean of 100. Unlike the standard IQ test however it is not a fixed model. It leans more to Piaget’s theory that intelligence is not a fixed attribute but a complex hierarchy of information-processing skills underlying an adaptive equilibrium between the individual and the environment. An individual can therefore change their SQ by altering their attitudes and behavior in response to their complex social environment.
Social Intelligence Hypothesis
The ‘Social Intelligence Hypothesis’ in science asserts that complex socialization – politics, romance, family relationships, quarrels, making-up, collaboration, reciprocity, altruism – in short, social intelligence (a) was the driving force in developing the size of human brains and (b) today provides our ability to use those large brains in complex social circumstances.
It was the demands of living together that drove our need for intelligence. This idea is called the ‘Social Intelligence Hypothesis’.
Professor of early history at Reading University, Steve Mithen, believes there are two key periods of brain expansion that contextualize the social intelligence hypothesis. The first was around two million years ago when brains expanded by about 50%. So humans went from brain size of around 450cc to a brain size of around 1,000cc by 1.8 million years ago. Archaeologists noting this change in primates asked; why are brains getting larger and what is it providing? Brains wouldn’t get larger just for any reasons because brain tissue is metabolically very expensive, so has to be serving an important purpose. Mithen believes the social intelligence hypothesis suggests the expansion of brain size around two million years ago was because people were living in larger groups, more complex groups, having to keep track of different people, a larger number of social relationships that required a larger brain to do so. Social intelligence therefore gives us the answer to that first expansion of brain size two million years ago.
The second increase in brain size happened between between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago, and during that period the brain reached its modern capacity. Trying to explain that second expansion in brain size is still a very challenging question. Mithen’s view is that it is directly related to the evolution of language. Language is probably the most complex cognitive task we undertake. Language is directly related to social intelligence because we mainly use language to mediate our social relationships.
So social intelligence was a critical factor in the expansions of brain size – there is a co-evolution between social and cognitive complexity. And today social intelligence is pivotal in managing the complexity of being social animals.
How is Intelligence Different to Social Intelligence?
It’s not enough just to be clever according to Nicholas Humphrey. Autistic children, for example, are sometimes extremely clever. They’re very good at making observations and remembering it all. However, it is argued they have low social intelligence. Chimpanzees are very clever at the level of being able to make observations and remember things. They can remember better than humans can, but they, again, are inept at handling interpersonal relationships. So something else is needed. What is needed is a theory of mind, a theory of how other people work from the inside. For a long time the field was dominated by so-called behaviorism. Scientists thought they could understand human beings, rats, pigeons, just by watching what goes on, writing it all down, doing correlations and so on. It turns out you can’t. It has to be thought about in terms of the inner structure behavior.
Both Nicholas Humphrey and Ross Honeywill believe it is social intelligence or the richness of our qualitative life rather than our quantitative intelligence that truly makes humans what they are – for example what it’s like to be a human being living at the center of the conscious present, surrounded by smells and tastes and feels and the sense of being an extraordinary metaphysical entity with properties which hardly seem to belong to the physical world.
This is social intelligence.