I. The High Road and the Low Road

Our social brains are hard wired to connect with other people. We are designed to be sociable, even in routine encounters. With new tools such as the magnetic imaging resonator (MRI) neuroscientists can detail the neural mechanics of these connections with other people. Looking beyond just one brain at a time, social intelligence is about acting wisely in these brain-to-brain linkages.

Our social brains have a high road and a low road. We experience others emotionally on the low road through the amygdala in our mid-brains that extracts messages from our senses without engaging our verbal or conscious faculties. Through this low road, raw feelings can pass from person to person without anyone noticing it, as though emotions were “contagious”. We also experience others on the high road that engages our verbal and cognitive systems. The high road provides us a conscious understanding of what’s going on. Our social lives are governed by the interplay of these two roads. Any conversation operates on two levels: high road rationality (words and meanings) and a low road protoconversation, an emotional link beneath the words.

Implications: For those who cleave to rationality and eschew “touchy-feely”, the low road may seem to be a dark and foreboding route to social interaction, where the comforts of logic, data and analysis don’t necessarily apply. It may be unsettling to learn that we cannot not communicate with others. But there it is, and the MRIs are mapping it. Better to navigate the low road with such maps as are available than to wander aimlessly.

II. Defining Social Intelligence

Social intelligence combines social awareness and social facility.

  • Social awareness invokes a primal empathy allowing us to feel with others, attuning to another person through “deep listening”, empathic accuracy in decoding social signals, and social cognition about how the social world works.
  • Social facility involves synchrony – interacting smoothly on non-verbal low road levels, self-presentation – communicating what we intend on both high and low levels, influence – shaping the outcome of social situations, and concern about others and a willingness to act on that concern.

Traditional ideas of social intelligence have focused almost exclusively on the high road without attention to the low road essentials. Valuing a calculating intellect but ignoring a warm heart slights low road brain-to-brain social glue that is the foundation of any social interaction.

Implications: Social intelligence challenges us to acquire interpersonal skills and understandings once thought to be the private turf of psychotherapists and other “people persons”.

III. Narcissists, Machiavellians and Psychopaths

“I-It” relationships treat others as things, not persons. Our brains register social rejection in the same area that also registers physical pain. In “I-You” relationships your feelings more than matter to me, they change me. The low road is where we attune I-You, where we “feel felt”.

Three uncaring personality types maintain I-It relationships: runaway narcissists, Machiavellians, and psychopaths.

  • Ordinary narcissists have dreams of glory, are bored by routine, flourish when facing difficulties. Though narcissism can be healthy up to a point, runaway narcissists crave to be admired more than loved, care little how their actions affect others, turn a blind eye to those who don’t feed their striving for glory. They take credit for successes but never blame for failures. Entire organizations can become runaway narcissistic, divorcing them from reality as they collude to maintain shared illusions.
  • To Machiavellians the ends justify the means, no matter what. Other people are strictly means to a desired end. In organizations they “kiss up and kick down”. They lack the capacity to feel with others, hence can’t feel for others. They leave a trail of ex-friends, ex-lovers, ex-business associates, all brimming with resentment.
  • Psychopaths are indifferent to others’ pain, feel no anxiety or fear, seem immune to stress and oblivious to the threat of punishment. They often have a childhood history of torturing animals, and later of bullying, picking fights, forcing sex and setting fires.

These uncaring personality types are not burdened with the “social emotions”: remorse, guilt, shame, embarrassment or pride that act as a moral compass in healthier persons.

Implications: Unfortunately, too many uncaring personality types seem to succeed in our society, too often at great cost to others. Among leaders, there can be a fine distinction between healthy narcissism and the runaway variety: Jack Welsh of GE or Ken Lay of Enron. The traditional “social emotions” are still socially intelligent.

IV. Genes, Environment and Relationships

Since the Human Genome project was competed in 2003, geneticists have been swamped with new information. A new field of epigenetics explores how environment affects the ways genes “express” themselves. Genes and environment are interdependent. A new sub-science of social epigenetics tries to understand how social interactions affect genes through hormones in the endocrine system and neurotransmitters in the brain.

Family life alters the activity of genes. How we treat children sets levels of activity in their genes. As children vie to be unique, they are treated differently. How the family responds to their uniqueness can have a huge effect on the child’s temperament. What children experience every day sculpts their neural circuits.

Parent-child attachments usually fall into one of three patterns:

  • Where parents are in emotional synch with their children, they provide a secure base for attachment. In later adult love relationships, children from a secure base see themselves as a worthy of concern, care and affection, and view others as accessible, reliable and having good intentions toward them.
  • Where parents are anxious, hovering and self-preoccupied, their children tend to become anxious in their love relationships, fear their partner won’t stay, apprehensive and clinging, needing excessive reassurance, susceptible to “love addiction”.
  • Where parents are avoidant, uncomfortable in being emotionally close, their adult children may find it hard to trust a partner or share feelings, suppress their own emotions, expect other to be emotionally untrustworthy.

Sometimes the resilient child of anxious or avoidant parents finds a secure base elsewhere, a “surrogate parent”, older sibling, teacher or other nurturing relationship. Nurturing relationships in later life can rewrite the neural attachment scripts encrypted during childhood. This is much of psychotherapy’s work, the therapist providing a temporary secure base for their clients.

Depression can be “inherited” in a sense from depressed parents.

Our brain’s capacity for joy seems linked to the kind of care we receive as children. There seems to be a direct link between one’s resilience to stress and our capacity for happiness.

Implications: “As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined”. Inclined, yes, but not irrevocably destined. That secure base, though elusive in childhood, may be yet attainable as we mature.

V. Stress is social.

Whether our important relationships are nourishing or toxic can make a medical difference. Toxic relationships can be major factors for disease and death – as threatening as smoking, high blood pressure or cholesterol, obesity and physical inactivity. Employees in subordinate positions who suppress their anger are four times as likely to develop cardiovascular disease as top executives. Loneliness reduces cardiovascular and immune function.

For American women, positive relationships are their major source of satisfaction and well-being throughout life. Friendlessness is as detrimental to women’s health as smoking or obesity. For American men, a sense of personal growth and independence is more important than positive relationships. Severe emotional crisis is more likely to trigger heart attack in women, while physical exertion is the more likely trigger of male heart attacks.

In large part the medical profession suffers from organized lovelessness. Compassion is an impediment to efficient medical practice. Caregivers who take time to express compassion are healthier, happier in their work and experience less “compassion fatigue”. Unfortunately, the motive to connect with people that draws so many into medicine gets slowly supplanted by the hospital culture. The question is not whether empathy can be taught to medical caregiver, but what is being done to drive it out of them.

Implications: If my relationships with others are either nourishing or toxic to their physical health, I want to be a caregiver, not a carrier.

VI. Finding the Social “Sweet Spot”

When one is “frazzled” emotional upsurges hamper intellectual excellence. On the other hand, boredom fogs the brain, the mind wanders, loses focus. One’s task is to locate and maintain the neural “sweet spot” between boredom and frazzle, where intellectual powers operate at the optimum level. That “sweet spot” draws on our peak abilities, and urges us on without undue anxiety – i.e. our most productive combination of performance and stress.

The emotional task of leaders is to help subordinates get to and stay as close as possible to their “sweet spots”. Because emotions are so “contagious”, every boss at every level needs to remember that he or she can make matters either worse or better.

Socially intelligent leadership is being applied in prisons, in high crime neighborhoods, even internationally to reduce longstanding prejudices and divisions. In some respects, social intelligence borrows from positive psychology and its pursuit of human happiness.

Implications: As Goleman concludes, the exquisite social responsiveness of the brain demands that we realize that not just our own emotions but our very biology is being driven and molded, for better or for worse, by others – and in turn, that we take responsibility for how we affect the people in our lives.

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