The term “social intelligence” is typically associated with the conception of intelligence developed by Edward Thorndike (1874–1949), a distinguished animal psychologist and a recognized founder of connectionism, a movement within the cognitive sciences attempting to explain human abilities and cognitive skills as complex emergent functions arising from the recruiting of simple elements (i.e., neurons and neuronal groups) into complex networks (i.e., neuronal networks). In the early twentieth century, Thorndike separated three types of intelligence: (1) abstract (capturing what tests of intelligence measure); (2)mechanical (related to visualizing relationships among objects and understanding how the physical world works); and (3) social intelligence (reflective of the degree of success in functioning in interpersonal situations). The notion of social intelligence was further developed in the 1920s and 1930s and referred primarily to the ability of getting along with people, but also to the ability to decode, understand, and manipulate the moods of others. In addition, during the 1920s and 1930s the first tests of social intelligence were developed. The George Washington Social Intelligence Test included, for example, tests of Judgment in Social Situations, Memory for Names and Face, Observation of Human Behavior, and Sense of Humor. Yet, the concept of testing for social intelligence was not uniformly accepted: Psychologist David Wechsler, for example, argued that social intelligence is a manifestation of general intelligence in its application to social situations.
After a number of empirical studies failed to show construct validity of the social intelligence concept as it was measured at the beginning of the twentieth century, work on social intelligence slowed down substantially. It was not until psychologist Joy Paul Guilford developed a representation of social intelligence through various abilities in the domain of behavioral operations (i.e., all behavioral-psychological acts) in the late 1960s that interest in the “essence” of the construct resurfaced. But the concept of social intelligence was defined differently, through a number of terms, such as behavioral or social cognition (by Maureen O’Sullivan), social competence (by Martin Ford and Marie Tisak), intra- and interpersonal intelligence (by Howard Gardner), practical intelligence (by Robert Sternberg), emotional intelligence, and dimensions of personality (by Hans Eysenck). Although in modern day there is great interest in the concept of social intelligence, there is no consensus definition and no unity with regard to assessment approaches. Another source of support for the importance of the concept of social intelligence is associated with implicit studies of intelligence. In this research, people are typically asked to generate a list of traits relevant to intelligent behavior. Of interest is the observation that in the majority of all such studies, the dimension of social competence inevitably comes up as an important component of intelligent behavior.
In the late 1980s, psychologists John Kihlstrom and Nancy Cantor systematized the literature on cognition, intelligence, and personality. Kihlstrom and Cantor derived the definition of social intelligence as a person’s knowledge and expertise concerning oneself and the surrounding social world, and determinant of an individual’s approach to solving problems of social life. They proposed to classify social knowledge into two categories: (1) declarative social knowledge including abstract concepts and specific memories, which can be subdivided into context-free semantic and context-dependent episodic memories; and (2) procedural knowledge including rules and skills (cognitive and motor), which are necessary for the translation of declarative knowledge into action. Examples of sets of declarative social knowledge are social concepts of personalities, situations and groups, and individuals’ autobiographic memory. Examples of sets of procedural social knowledge are interpretive rules for understanding, processing, and representing social experience, such as establishing social causality; making inferences about other people’s behaviors, emotions, and feelings; judging like-ability; implying trust; inducing and deducing responsibility; managing cognitive dissonance; and formulating and testing social hypotheses. According to Cantor and Kihlstrom, social intelligence is evoked when a person is faced with the need to solve problems of social life, in particular when faced with life tasks, current concerns, or personal projects. These problems can either be formulated by people themselves or imposed on them from outside. Using this definition, social intelligence can be judged quantitatively (i.e., high or low) only through the eyes of the beholder, that is, from the point of view of the person whose life is in play.
Stephen Greenspan includes social intelligence, along with practical intelligence, in his model of adaptive intelligence. In turn, adaptive intelligence, together with physical competence and socioemotional adaptation, are dimensions of personal competence. This view of social intelligence implies that it consists of three components: (1) social sensitivity (captured in social role-taking and making social inferences); (2) social insight (manifested by comprehending social situations, generating social–psychological insights, and forming ethical and moral judgments); and (3) social communication (evoked in carrying out social communication and social problem solving). This conceptualization of intelligence is important in establishing levels of mental competencies. The main argument here is that mental retardation in human societies should be defined not only based on general levels of intelligence, but also on indicators of adaptive functioning, of which social intelligence is viewed to be a major portion.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, work on social intelligence became closely linked to research on autism. It has been argued that one of the main deficits in autism and other disorders on the autism spectrum is a lack of proper development of social intelligence or expertise in dealing with people. This line of work on social intelligence is related to the “theory of mind,” which typically refers to a specific cognitive capacity to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.
Another line of research that uses the concept of social intelligence is linked to the work on artificial intelligence (AI), which is the capacity of a digital computer or computer-controlled robot device to perform tasks commonly associated with higher intellectual processes characteristic of humans, such as the ability to reason, discover meaning, generalize, and learn from past experience. The foundation of this link is in the realization that although computers can be programmed successfully to carry out effectively and proficiently some complex analytical tasks (e.g., simulating human capabilities for problem solving), there are still no computer systems that match human flexibility in navigating the breadth of tasks encountered in everyday life. Through its connection with AI, social intelligence is also studied in game theory (i.e., the investigation and modeling of decision-making by multiple players attempting to maximize their return), action selection (i.e., the investigation and modeling of performing a choice between multiple parallel, competing, conflicting and overlapping goals), swarm intelligence paradigm (i.e., the investigation and modeling of complex emergent intelligent networks), and many other fields of applied mathematics, computer science, economics, and evolution.
SEE ALSO Cognition; Computers: Science and Society; Game Theory; Intelligence; Multiple Intelligences Theory; Personality; Theory of Mind
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Greenspan, Stanley I. 1997. The Growth of the Mind: And the Endangered Origins of Intelligence. New York: Addison-Wesley.
Kihlstrom, John, and Nancy Canton. 2000. Social Intelligence. In Handbook of Intelligence, ed. Robert J. Sternberg. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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Elena L. Grigorenko