University of Queensland psychologist Bill von Hippel studies social interaction in humans. Specifically, why some of us can be so bad at navigating social situations, while others can make even the most awkward happenings flow seamlessly. Even though most of us know it’s not good form to insult someone else’s culture; yell, “How are those hemorrhoids coming?” to a friend at a party; or spit out an aunt’s bad cooking, a good number of us just can’t seem to help ourselves. But why? This is what von Hippel works to find out.
It’s an issue of social knowledge (knowing what one should do in hypothetical social situations) versus social intelligence (being able to put this knowledge to use in real time), he says in a talk at TEDxUQ (Watch the whole talk here). For years, von Hippel and his team at University of Queensland have carried out a series of experiments on everyday Australians to discover what determines the gap between social knowledge and intelligence in humans. Here’s how:
Experiment 1 (The chicken experiment):
- The situation: Subjects are greeted by an experimenter who explains, quite enthusiastically, that she is about to cook them her favorite dish, something she can’t wait for them to taste. Subjects are then presented with a chicken’s foot cooked in a traditional Chinese style — food very unfamiliar and unorthodox to many Australians.
- Results: Responses varied from polite refusal to immediate consumption (despite a sense of discomfort toward the new dish), to von Hippel’s favorite, a cry of, “That’s bloody disgusting!” Seeing these reactions, the researchers wanted to know what about the brains of these two camps were different, why could some politely refuse and others couldn’t help but shout out? A good guess, they thought, was something in the frontal lobe, an area of the brain closely associated with emotional issues. To test their hypothesis, the team administered tests to gauge subjects’ frontal lobe functioning. (Perhaps those with lower-functioning frontal lobes would be the same who couldn’t help but yell out insults, tout de suite, and those who exhibited a large gap between knowledge of social standards and ability to conform to them.) Results matched their hypothesis — those with atrophied or lower-functioning frontal lobes exhibited lower levels of social intelligence.
Experiment 2 (The couples’ fight):
- The situation: Experimenters ask long-term romantic partners to discuss contentious issues, all while observing their behavior in this socially-challenging situation.
- Results: The team discovered that subjects with higher-functioning frontal lobes navigate difficult discussions with ease — less likely to scream, provoke, or exhibit aggressive body language during the discussion.
Experiment 3 (The sabotage):
- The situation: Experimenters ask groups of friends to solve a problem for a cash prize. What almost all members of the groups don’t know, however, is that before starting, one friend in each group is secretly told to attempt to convince everyone to choose an incorrect answer for his or her own cash prize.
- Results: When interviewed, group members were less likely to identify saboteurs with high-functioning frontal lobes as deceitful or manipulative during the experiment. Saboteurs with lower-functioning frontal lobes were often rated as more suspicious.
So what does this mean for us? These experiments let us know that being a wizard at social interaction isn’t just a skill to be learned, says von Hippel. A lot of it has to do with our brain’s capacity to take learned knowledge and use it, and the limits of this capacity may just be the limits of our social skills.
“[Social knowledge] isn’t enough,” he says. “Being socially intelligent is more than that. It involves a variety of capacities, capacities that are seated primarily in the frontal lobes of our brain and [enable] us to endear ourselves to others, to charm ourselves into other people’s hearts rather than to continually put our foot in our mouth.”