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Reading the Face: The Importance of Social Intelligence

There are certain traits that we don’t pay much attention to, but which actually do explain success.  So, for example, one of them you would call mind sight, which is the ability to look into other people’s eyes and sort of download the information they have there.  Babies come with this skill, so a scientist named Allen Meltshoff leaned over a 43-minute old baby and wagged his tongue at the baby and the baby, she wagged her tongue back.  And she didn’t know what a face was or what a tongue was, but we’re all wired to know at birth that we should mimic what we see.  And that’s how we download models.  

Some people retain this ability, others don’t.  Babies are phenomenally good at reading faces. So if you take a bunch of monkey faces and put them in from of six-month old babies, six months olds can tell one monkey face from another because they’re really good at detecting little facial features.  Adults can’t do this.  We lose that skill.  And so some people have that ability to really intuit what other people are saying and sort of feel that themselves.

Another skill is what you might call metis, which is a Greek word (Μῆτις), which we would call street smarts.  It’s the ability to look over a physical landscape and detect what’s important, what’s not, what’s a pattern, what’s not.  And so for example, in chicken farms they have these things called chicken sexers who pick up a little chick and they try to tell is it a male or female.  And they can do it with 99 percent accuracy, but they have no clue how they do it.  If you ask them “What are you looking for?” they really don’t know.  But over long experience, they’ve learned to detect patterns and to see things in clear ways.  

So these are the sorts of skills that some people have and some people don’t.  Another is the ability to be sensitive to social environments.  Some people have the ability to detect the emotions in others.  And so, for example, most of us work in groups and that’s because groups are just much smarter than individuals.  And the groups that meet face-to-face are much smarter than groups that meet electronically.  

At the University of Michigan, they did a study where they gave math tests to groups. Some of them had to meet face-to-face and they gave them 10 minutes to solve the math problem. Other groups communicated by email and they had 30 minutes to solve the math problem. The face-to-face groups could solve the problem easily; the electronic groups couldn’t solve the problems.  And that’s because most of our communication is face-to-face, it’s by intonation of voice, it’s by gesture.  And some people are really good at picking up those gestures.  Some people are not so good.  And in the groups that succeeded, it was not the high IQ of the members of the group, it was how sensitive they were to each other, how much they took turns while talking.  

So these are the sorts of traits that really explain fulfillment and achievement.