Social Intelligence

A New Definition of
Human Intelligence

By Dr. Norman D. Livergood

If You're So Wealthy Why Aren't You Wise?

     At the beginning of the twentieth century, Alfred Binet devised a measure to predict which Paris youngsters would succeed and which would fail in the primary grades, starting what was to become the vast intelligence quotient-IQ-sub-culture. This new psychometricist clan expanded widely when Binet 's test was used with over one million American military recruits for World War I. Since then the IQ sub-culture has expanded into the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the American College Test (ACT), the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the Miller Analogies Test (MAT), and many others. Like any sub-culture, once it started rolling it had its believers and its detractors.

     Edward L. Thorndike maintained that there are three intelligences: abstract, mechanical, and social. In a Harper's Magazine article in the 1930s, he defined social intelligence as the ability to understand others and "act wisely in human relations." He maintained that social intelligence is different from academic ability and a key element in what makes people succeed in life. But beyond those general characterizations of social intelligence, neither Thorndike nor anyone else had much intelligent to say.

     Part of the test of a concept is what it accomplishes in human life. If we look at the social effects of the IQ sub-culture I think we must say it 's been a dismal failure. IQ measures have been used to make invidious distinctions between people: higher IQ persons were supposed to be "superior" to low IQ persons in some mysterious way. The American concept of “intelligence” has narrowed down to two basic images:

  1. The Double Jeopardy kind of quiz-kid mentality which sees the memorization of unorganized information as the height of intelligence

  2. The mis-identification of intelligence with financial success, epitomized in the phrase, If you're so smart, why aren 't you rich?
     It's not surprising that the IQ cult has landed us in such deplorable intellectual straits; its basic concepts were regressive to begin with. The IQ “tests” merely tap an individual's capacity to:
  • Follow directions (accept a problem to be solved and the way to solve it)

  • Follow the right steps and arrive at the correct solution (correct as defined by the test maker)

  • Memorize the cultural "great ideas," historical figures and battles, scientific data, and other inert "facts" deemed important by the test makers

Multiple Intelligences

     In developing the concept of social intelligence, I have found Howard Gardner 's 1 concept of multiple intelligences to be fruitful. Also helpful is the concept of emotional intelligence developed by Solovey and Mayer 2 and reviewed by Goleman 3. Gardner is able to see through the American obsession with the logical-mathematical concept of intelligence, identifying seven kinds of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, personal, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.

     I find these eight concepts of intelligence useful as a counterbalance to the cultural bias toward the IQ tests, which focus exclusively on logical-linguistic-spatial-mathematical mental skills. They also help obviate the idiocy that persons are to be judged as intelligent by the happenstance of their being billionaires.

Social Intelligence

     A definition, like any kind of human communication, limits the range of discourse. A definition is a way of placing a concept in a general category and then distinguishing the particular concept from others in that category. So we define a wine bottle as being in the category of container and distinguish it from other containers as being usually a glass container.

      In defining social intelligence we 're talking about a general category: the human capacity to understand what 's happening in the world and responding to that understanding in a personally and socially effective manner. We have to confine our definition of social intelligence so we 're not including within it all positive human attributes, making it a kind of definitional panacea.

The Allegory of Wisdom and Strength      What we're trying to do in defining social intelligence is get at a quality in human beings which makes them capable of awareness and understanding in the broadest possible terms. Not mere financial or academic or interpersonal success but understanding that makes it possible to make their lives worthwhile and in making their society better during their lifetime and after. Social intelligence is in the tradition of wisdom, not the more current idea of "smartness."

      By defining social intelligence we want to create a new model for human behavior and a new way of viewing reality. The model will attempt to get rid of truncated, lopsided definitions of intelligence, so we could no longer speak of a socially intelligent murderer or a socially intelligent corporate CEO who takes American jobs to Mexico and destroys vast parts of American life (cities, families, facilities). 4

      And our definition of social intelligence has to include such a person as Socrates, a man who ended his life as a condemned criminal but who achieved timeless success through passing on his understanding of what intelligence is--the recognition of one 's own ignorance and faithful dedication to one 's principles.

How We Test Definitions of Intelligence for Specificity

     The difficulty with previous definitions of intelligence is that they refer to certain qualities or skills that may lead to effectiveness or limited success, but do not refer to the specific grouping of qualities we include in social intelligence. Yes, it takes a certain kind of mental skill to pass IQ tests; it requires a great deal of psychological shrewdness to acquire wealth; we recognize when a person is emotionally mature by their ability to take responsibility for their own emotions, among other things.

      But none of these factors, either separately or in tandem, points to social intelligence. Some definitions of intelligence seem to be nothing more than isolated skills. Gardner 's concepts of musical and spatial intelligence appear to be no more than discrete abilities, but not social intelligence. If we put each of the old definitions of intelligence to the test of specificity, they all fail.

Jesus in the Temple      A wise prophet once said (to paraphrase): What shall it benefit a man if he gains all the wealth in the world and lose his soul as it becomes a hell-hole of money-obsession, banality, and ignorance? In other words, you can be ludicrously wealthy and still be stupid enough to destroy yourself. And in including social responsibility in our definition of social intelligence we can update that same sentiment: What shall it benefit twenty-first century American people if they gain all the money in the world and lose their country as it becomes a hell-hole of obscene wealth for the upper class, wage slavery for the middle class, homelessness and grinding poverty for the lower class, and banality and ignorance for everyone?

     So our procedure in defining social intelligence is:

  • Examining current and historical models of intelligence

  • Analyzing current and past conceptions of what characteristics make up human intelligence
      We then arrive at a combination of elements which make up social intelligence; no single ingredient is adequate by itself. For example, we examine John Stuart Mill 's conception of a wise person.

     "In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it; for, being cognisant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers - knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter - he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who has not gone through a similar process." 5

     And we examine characteristics of certain groups which preclude their possessing social intelligence, as in C. Wright Mills' 1956 characterization of the power elite 's mode of thought.

     The elite expect the ambitious to "fit in" with those at the top.

     "So speak in the rich, round voice and do not confuse your superiors with details. Know where to draw the line. Execute the ceremony of forming a judgment. Delay recognizing the choice you have already made, so as to make the truism sound like the deeply pondered notion. Speak like the quiet competent man of affairs and never personally say No. Hire the No-man as well as the Yes-man. Be the tolerant Maybe-man and they will cluster around you, filled with hopefulness. Practice softening the facts into the optimistic, practical, forward-looking, cordial, brisk view. Speak to the well-blunted point. Have weight; be stable; . . . and never let your brains show." 6

If You're So Smart, Why Are You A Unabomber?

     A good deal of heat was generated by discussion of the Harvard-educated Berkeley professor turned unabomber whose mail bombs killed people from 1978 to 1995. Apart from the renewal of America 's tendency toward anti-intellectualism, the unabomber issue raised the question again of how a person could be an IQ superstar and a murderer at the same time.

      The issue helped us recognize that there is something fundamentally wrong with our identification of academic or logical-mathematical skill as intelligence. If you retain the IQ definition of intelligence, then Theodore Kaczynski was a mental whiz. But if you broaden the concept of intelligence to include interpersonal compassion and social concern then the unabomber was not intelligent, merely academically bright. The whole episode helped to clarify the bankruptcy of the IQ sub-culture.

     By social intelligence, then, we mean the qualities of:

  • Seeing through the current social myths and diversions

  • Understanding the necessity of life-long self-education

  • Recognizing the necessity of social action, including discerning what the social situation requires and creating a program to realize social reform

  • Developing genuine feelings of compassion and regard for one 's fellow human beings.

     The world social situation is in such a state of crisis that no other group of qualities qualifies a person to be deemed socially intelligent.

     With regard to social awareness, we are fortunate to have the work of many different investigators who clarify this facet of social intelligence. From Greider 's disclosure of the political Big Con to Chomsky 's penetrating expose of international skullduggery to Kevin Phillips' uncovering of the disparity between obscene wealth and abject poverty to Neil Postman 's brilliant study of how we are amusing ourselves to death in front of our TV sets to C. Wright Mills' dissection of the power elite 's strengths and weaknesses to Paulo Freire 's radical pedagogy for the culturally illiterate, we have an invaluably broad panoply of sources to diagnose the ills of our society and realize the ways social reform must be carried out.

     Social intelligence, in my view, includes the whole range of mankind 's relationships with other humans and with the world in general. Social intelligence, in other words, is much broader than political awareness or psychological savvy or enlightened activism. It includes discernment of all social conditioning, from ritual to religion, from MTV to metaphysics, from jet-set to down-sizing, from anti-terrorist legislation curtailing our freedom to the Orwellian crippling of our language and our minds.

      Thus, in creating a definition of social intelligence, we are talking about the whole range of human thought and action. It includes an examination of the mythologies of contemporary science and a review of the work of investigators who are pushing us beyond the current Newtonian-Einsteinian ideologies to new ways of viewing reality.

     Social intelligence includes what Theodore Roszak calls "spiritual intelligence" in his book Unfinished Animal.

"It is spiritual intelligence the moment demands of us: the power to tell the greater from the lesser reality, the sacred paradigm from its copies and secular counterfeits. Spiritual intelligence--without it, the consciousness circuit will surely become a lethal swamp of paranormal entertainments, facile therapeutic tricks, authoritarian guru trips, demonic subversions.

Jesus' Baptism      "But where is spiritual intelligence to be found, especially in this society whose peculiar history renders it as incompetent at dealing with the subtleties of the spiritual life as the Bushman-Hottentots would be at programing a computer? The answer that suggests itself at once to my own taste is: we must find it in sacred tradition, in those ancient springs of visionary knowledge which are the source of the mystic and occult schools, and from which we draw our entire repertory of transcendent symbolism and metaphysical insight. The 'perennial wisdom,' the 'secret doctrine,' the 'old gnosis' . . . if the idea of such an original and universal epiphany is a 'myth,' then it is one of the good myths; in fact, the myth which underlies our very conception of truth as that to which all people voluntarily acquiesce in their common humanity."

     Part of what we want to accomplish with a new definition of social intelligence is to distinguish between people who possess this congeries of abilities and attitudes and people who do not possess it. A major difficulty with the commonplace definition of intelligence is that everyone is supposed to have it--in larger or smaller doses.

      Taking the opposite tack, we can say that only a few people at any given time have social intelligence. A major element in social intelligence is the ability of persons to see through the social myths dominant during their lifetime. And at any given time, only a few people are able to achieve the necessary understanding of their social conditioning to break through the delusions, myths, and fantasies peddled by the people controlling social ideology and behavior.

      This aspect of social intelligence has been described by Paulo Freire 7   as critical consciousness and it requires extraordinary abilities to recognize oneself as being a member of an oppressed class and seeing our oppression as a situation which we can transform through informed action.

     It will remain for later studies to illustrate separate aspects of social intelligence that lead to personal and social action. Some of the other dimensions of social intelligence that we must investigate include:

  • How we can train in and increase social intelligence, unlike the fixed quotient concept of IQ

  • How we can realize group social intelligence through intellectual and psychic flocking

  • How people with social intelligence are able to identify others with social intelligence in non-ordinary ways

  • How people with social intelligence are able to attain social invisibility

  • How social intelligence relates to the wisdom teachings (wisdom literature, wisdom as enlightenment, the Perennial Tradition)

  • How to distinguish between "having" and "being" in relation to social intelligence, a la Erich Fromm and other thinkers

  • How levels of social intelligence are manifested in political and spiritual awareness

1 Howard Gardner. (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, NY: Basic Books

2 Peter Solovey and John D. Mayer. (1990). “Emotional Intelligence,” Imagination, Cognition, and Personality 9, pp. 185-211

3 Daniel Goleman. (1985). Emotional Intelligence, NY: Bantam Books

4 Roger and Me - a film by Michael Moore; and the latest media stories about today's firing of a new group of American workers and the multi-million dollar salaries of American corporate CEOs

5 John Stuart Mill. (1859, 1994). On Liberty, NY: Cambridge University Press

6 C. Wright Mills. (1956). The Power Elite, NY: Oxford University Press.

7 Paulo Freire. (1973). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, NY: Seabury