I study human relationships from the perspective of Social Neuroscience. For the past twenty years, I’ve watched people navigate their sometimes quite troubled social environments, looking for clues about what makes some relationships successful while others flounder toward conflict.
This has led me to a deep understanding of how people behave with one another when goals are shared and, perhaps more importantly, when goals are not shared—when conflict arises and solutions have to be negotiated. What is clear is that the best relationships are those whose inhabitants are skilled at managing their own emotions and the emotions of others. Skilled emotion managers are skilled cooperators.
Note that I have not said that the best relationships are those whose inhabitants have managed to avoid emotional behavior. Quite the opposite is true, in fact. Emotions happen. The most skilled cooperators use this to their advantage.
How do they do that? By learning about, and paying attention to, the emotional and social behavior of the people in their environment.
Simple, right? Not so fast. Although most of us are good enough at this, a relatively small number of people are excellent at it. And the number of us who aren’t very good at it is rather larger than we’d like.
But new research shows that when groups of individuals get together for a common purpose—as happens in business at all levels—the number of individuals in those groups who are insensitive to emotional and social cues is inversely proportional to what we now call “collective IQ” (as measured by how well and quickly they solve difficult problems). Groups with members who are better at ‘reading’ social and emotional cues in one another achieve better outcomes in problem solving challenges.
Moreover, researchers have found that 1) groups with a mixture of men and women have the highest group IQs; 2) the IQ of a group will typically be higher than the IQ of its smartest member; and 3) when one member of the group is viewed as exceptionally smart, the group can get dumber if the super smart person dominates, because the other members of the group don’t try as hard.
How does sensitivity to emotional and social cues contribute to the collective IQ of a group? Recent work in my laboratory suggests this rather provocative possibility: Individuals who are more socially sensitive are better at forging trust, and when two or more individuals trust each other their brains work more efficiently in each others’ presence.
It turns out that the regions of your brain that are essential for contributing to the collective IQ of your group are also responsible for the effortful control of your own emotions, and there isn’t enough blood in your brain at any one time to run all that ‘software’ simultaneously at optimal levels. When groups cooperate effectively, there is less need for self-management. When the need for self-management decreases, the neural contributors to collective IQ are more free to do their work.
Cooperation is an effective way to foster adaptability and creativity. And that adaptability and creativity has allowed us to dominate the planet. Smarter groups contain members who are more sensitive to social cues because individuals who are sensitive to social cues foster trust in those with whom they interact, and with increased trust comes increased neural efficiency.
Indeed, mounting evidence suggests that our genes passed through a “population bottleneck”—a period of great hardship that nearly wiped us off the terrestrial map. At that time, our species was probably reduced to something between 2,000 and 30,000 individuals. (If that seems like a large range, consider that today the human population is more than 7 billion.) Some think that during those dark days, the greatest protective factor possessed by those humans who survived was the ability to cooperate. If true, then our ability to cooperate may be firmly embedded in our genes—genes that may provide the foundation for our most important adaptation: adaptability itself.
Hal Movius and I are working on understanding the implications of all this as we advise groups and companies on effective communication, negotiation and leadership practices. Our collaboration promises to lead to powerful new insights into how leaders and teams can communicate, collaborate and manage conflict more effectively. Stay tuned.
by Jim Coan