Sunday, June 6, 2010

Social Intelligence

I found a book at the library by Daniel Goleman, the psychologist famous for studying emotional intelligence. The new book is about a related concept, social intelligence. But I don't like to commit to reading a book without reading some commentary first, so I did a search online.

I found this forum filled with comments criticizing the concept (and a test based on it). It turns out most of the posters had low scores, which seems to be the source of their gripes. Then I noticed the forum is for people autistic spectrum disorders, mostly Asperger's, which is characterized by:

  • Displaying unusual nonverbal communication, such as lack of eye contact, few facial expressions, or awkward body postures and gestures
  • Showing an intense obsession with one or two specific, narrow subjects, such as baseball statistics, train schedules, weather or snakes
  • Appearing not to understand, empathize with or be sensitive to others' feelings
  • Having a hard time "reading" other people or understanding humor
  • Engaging in one-sided, long-winded conversations, without noticing if the listener is listening or trying to change the subject
  • I've read a lot of stories about autism where people claim they are happy to be autistic, that is isn't really a disease, just a difference, at least in high-functioning variants. But Goleman's research suggests that these symptoms cause real harm by making it hard to bond with friends, a major determinant of happiness, and putting people at risk of depression.

    I typed in all the reported scores (n = 81) and the average is 83.4, a little more than 1 standard deviation below the theoretical population average. The distribution is bi-modal (one around 78 and another near 100) but has the same standard deviation as the population. The comments are consistent with the possibility low scorers do tend to be unhappy. One person wrote that they scored low because "[b]ecause I'm depressed and am honest about my problems and limitations I am therefore [socially] retarded" and a number of others felt the test was a diagnostic for depression, seemingly acknowledging they have symptoms. On the whole, then, it seems probable that autism does make people unhappy, which should be the measure of whether any condition is a problem.

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