A Brief History of Social Intelligence

Simple in concept, but sometimes challenging in practice, social intelligence helps accelerate one’s human capabilities.  This is particularly important when interacting with others in the workplace and out.

Early Research on Social Intelligence

The concept of social intelligence goes back more than 100 years to American psychologist and adult learning researcher Edward Thorndike who described social intelligence as the ability “to act wisely in human relations.”  Thorndike spent decades studying how people and animals learn through experiments and observation.

Thorndike is credited with researching the Law of Effect, a principle of behavioral conditioning which states that “responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in similar situations, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in similar situations.  The Law of Effect is an aspect of the SOCIAL STYLE Model and a significant reason people develop predictable behavior patterns.  Thorndike published papers and books for more than four decades and into the 1940s and influenced countless other psychologists and researchers.

Following World War II, numerous researchers built on the work of Thorndike and others to develop a more thorough understanding of cognitive development and individual behavior. The 1960s brought the first steps toward applying these concepts commercially.  The company that today is known as The TRACOM Group was founded by David Merrill with the purpose of identifying and developing the attributes that distinguished top workplace performers from the rest.

Commercial Applications of Social Intelligence

Merrill and others found that traditional intelligence measures, education and work experience did not fully explain why some people succeeded where others did not.  His work identified the four SOCIAL STYLEs and their preferred behavioral patterns.  More importantly it showed that understanding the Style of others and modifying one’s behaviors to help others meet their needs and preferences – a skill known as Versatility – is what leads to workplace success.

The concept of Social Intelligence entered the academic and business mainstream in the 1980s as various papers and books were published.  Psychologist Howard Gardner’s 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences differentiated intelligence into specific ‘modalities’, rather than seeing intelligence as dominated by a single general ability.  He identified eight modalities including logical, visual, intrapersonal and interpersonal.  The intrapersonal and interpersonal modalities are closely aligned with what today we call emotional intelligence and more broadly Social Intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence Gains Recognition

A variety of emotional intelligence – often called EI or EQ – models and assessments began appearing for commercial use in the 1980s and 90s.  But it was the publication of psychologist, author and science journalist Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book Emotional Intelligence:  Why It Can Matter More than IQ, that brought EQ to full prominence.  Goleman initially reported on the work of researchers John Mayer and Peter Salovey, but went on to his own work and research in the area.   Goleman’s follow-up books including Social Intelligence: The New Science of Social Relationships further explored how emotions, cognition and behavior are interrelated, especially in our working relationships.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.  Developed based on six years of primary and secondary research, TRACOM’s  Behavioral EQ was introduced in 2012 as  the next generation EQ model encompassing four major dimensions of emotion and behavior and 15 subcomponents.  Today it’s recognized for turning complex concepts into practical and actionable behavioral strategies.

Neuroscience Shines a Light on Cognition and Behavior

For centuries humanity relied on observation, experiments and intuition to better understand people and our bodies including the brain.  But modern neuroscience has thrown the doors open to a new understanding of how our brains work and what the implications are for behavior and performance.

The emergence of powerful new technologies such as neuroimaging combined with sophisticated experimental techniques from cognitive psychology allow neuroscientists and psychologists to learn how human cognition and emotion are related.  Combining neuroscience with the social and behavioral sciences allows us to consider complex questions about interactions of the brain with its environment.

With a better understanding of neurology, scientists recognize that our brains are more adaptable than historically believed.  While we are naturally wired with predispositions and cognitive biases based on millennia of evolution, we are actually well equipped to adapt how we think and ultimately behave.  Positive psychology and Adaptive Mindset are new areas of study that demonstrate how simple techniques can be practiced to override our natural instincts and achieve change.  Concepts such as mindfulness, employee wellness and emotional resilience have become part of corporate strategy fueled by this new understanding of how we think and how we work.  The recognition that intelligence is not fixed creates opportunities to improve.  Developing Social Intelligence skills through training programs can generate measurable benefits for individuals and their organizations.  And they set the stage for an even greater long-term understanding of our social world.

Learn more about Social Intelligence here.