The Social Animal

Social intelligence is about how to fit in, charm people, and allow socializing to help rather than hinder you in achieving your goals. Luckily, there are fairly predictable ways to do this, and that’s because we have millennia of data and behavioral patterns to study. Most of the tactics can relate in some way back to primitive, instinctual ways humans navigated the world. We’re the same as we were back then—we just have fancier clothes now.
It’s been hypothesized that our brains actually grew and developed as a result of needing to be social—for hunting, for procreation, and for general survival tactics. Communication is what sets us apart from most of the animals in the world.
At the heart of it all, this simply means that human are social animals. If we go into isolation, we go crazy. If we feel loneliness for an extended period of time, it literally kills us. The more we are around people, the happier we tend to feel in general, and this becomes especially apparent when we study the elderly.

The Social Animal

We all have this point in our lives when major hormonal changes get in the way of almost every aspect of our existence. I’m talking about our adolescence, that critical juncture to adulthood. And yes, I’m also talking about all that angst and newly discovered emotions seeping into our interactions.

Years ago (longer than I would like to admit), I was an emotionally anguished teenager. Par for the course, really. One day, the fragile bundle of emotion that was me came to a peak when I encountered a cashier who I thought had been rude to me for weeks. Our normal conversations went something like, “I’ll have the salmon bagel.” “Is that all?” “Yes, thank you.” “Okay, that will be three dollars.”

In just that sliver of interaction, can you feel the cashier’s contempt for me?

Of course not. I had made it up in my mind when I decided to be offended at anyone and everything. But what’s important is that I believed the story I had created for myself. In doing so, I started to treat this poor cashier like she was the scum of the Earth to get even with her, and she actually started becoming impolite to me. Keep in mind she was a cashier, so she was literally paid to be nice to people, and she had started to speak rudely to me. I must have been a terribly annoying teenager.

I had created a story in my mind, acted on it, and brought it to reality in the worst of ways. I didn’t realize until far later that this was the Pygmalion Effect at work, which states that, however you treat someone, that’s the person they will become to you. If you treat someone as if they are kind and magnanimous, you will probably encourage that side of them. You’ll be generous and caring to them, and they will respond in kind. However, if you treat someone as if they are swine, you won’t give them a chance to shine and you will bring out their worst sides—and that’s exactly how I behaved with this poor cashier.

That was my first peek into how small things can dramatically make you more likable and charismatic, or the complete opposite. It was a whole new understanding of social intelligence and what it takes to succeed with people. It’s not necessarily just knowing the best small-talk topics or being able to make powerful eye contact, as magazines and online articles would have you believe. It’s so much more than intentional courteous gestures and a pleasant demeanor. How we deal with social situations and people, in general, has something to do with how our brains operate—all those background processes that lie at the foundations of our thought patterns, cognitive tendencies, and emotions. Like it or not, we make the vast majority of our decisions underneath the surface of our conscious thinking. This is terrifying if you don’t understand what your decisions are truly being based on.

As the saying goes, knowledge is power. Gaining fuller understanding of how our minds work goes a long way in our search for self-improvement and mindfulness. This is where the book comes in to help. The goal here is to impart understanding of what people are really looking for when they judge and evaluate each other. Some of it will be nearly common sense, while other aspects will be completely counterintuitive. Along the way, you’ll learn more about the Pygmalion Effect, with dozens of other studies from biological science, social psychology, and even behavioral economics. You are about to embark on a journey into the depths of your mind and discover what gives you the feeling of chemistry with one person, and the worst feeling of all with another: complete apathy and instant disregard.

Again, this can be terrifying—but hopefully, by the end of this book, you’ll see more opportunity than chances to stumble socially.

We are ruled by our brains, and our social lives and relationships depend on decoding them! Underneath, we are all wired with the same hardware. Our software is a little different, but our core drives and motivations are just about standardized. Human beings are, both from a biological and evolutionary standpoint, social animals. Regardless of where an individual may fall on the spectrum of intro- and extroversion, some amount of social interaction is simply an integral part of life. It’s something we want and also something we need.

Social intelligence and understanding the relationships that surround us are key to getting what we want in life. Science and research have shown us a way to predictably deal with that which is theoretically the most unpredictable: people.

Over two millennia ago, the famous philosopher Aristotle was quoted as saying, “Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” The ability of our species to communicate with each other more effectively than any other species on Earth is the predominant factor that propelled us to the top of the food chain. And as civilization advances, social skills have remained a very important part of what makes people successful as individuals. If you don’t understand the science of social intelligence, you won’t only be left behind; you’ll be unhappy and have difficulty achieving your goals.

The Importance of Being Social

Why is it that we so readily understand the importance of developing our physical bodies, of enhancing our intellectual capacity and of learning skills—but so seldom spare a thought for sociability? Being social is as essentially human as any of our other core needs, and yet we take social intelligence for granted, assuming it will sort itself out. While we all understand that it might be nice to be liked by plenty of people, have strong friendships and a healthy social life, not many of us take steps to actually do anything about it.

There’s good reason to believe that social interaction and the skills it requires are a fundamental need for our species. It’s simple: understanding the art of bonding with other human beings is not optional but essential to who we are, and our thriving in this world. In this chapter we’ll look at some key research showing how our ancestors developed this vital ability to connect with one another, and how the need has stayed with us ever since. The benefits of mastering social skills are obvious: those with stronger social connections are healthier and more robust, have better mental health and undoubtedly benefit from the resources available on that social network.

A 2011 study published by Schultz et. al. in the well-known journal Nature explained how our primitive ancestors who were better at socializing had a fitness and survival advantage over their less-sociable peers, particularly as human beings learnt and evolved different foraging styles. Biologists and anthropologists have tried for years to understand exactly how qualities like individual and social behaviors evolve with time. In this study, the researchers suggested that as human beings moved from foraging alone to foraging in more adaptive social groups, and from foraging at night to foraging in the day (a more dangerous time), they developed sophisticated communication, empathy, cooperation and social rules. In other words, the social reality of human beings evolved a long time ago along with all our other traits.

We are hardwired this way today precisely because these behaviors were advantageous for our ancestors; those who were less sociable did not have this advantage and consequently died out millions of years ago. In fact, many believe that our very brains evolved to process the extra data that came with living in a group one had to get along with in order to survive. Our language, our faculty for imagination, our love for storytelling, our social and familial structures—all of these helped our ancestors survive, and still help us survive today.

It’s amazing to imagine that human beings had to actually learn how to be social, in the same way we had to learn to walk upright or use tools. In fact, being social is a bit like a tool in itself, and mankind’s early mastery of this skill developed in tandem with his ability to work together with a group and expand his reach. Another more recent article in the same journal proposes that early man developed language primarily as a social skill, i.e. to share advanced ideas with other members of the group.