Bryan Caplan  

How I Raised My Social Intelligence

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My social intelligence is a lot higher than it used to be.  I still wouldn't say that I'm "good with people."  But in my youth, I was truly inept.  In junior high, I had one real friend, and many overt enemies.  Since then, I've at least managed to claw my way up to mediocrity.

A lot of social intelligence is in details and practice.  If I could travel back in time and spend five minutes advising myself, though, here are the principles I would try to teach myself.

1. Good conversation is an exchange.  The most basic form of social ineptitude is to say what's on your mind, even though you have no reason to believe your listeners are interested.  Even more cloddish: Saying what's on your mind, even though you know that your listeners are not interested. 

In a useful conversation, in contrast, there is a double coincidence of wants.  You have to be interested in what I have to say; I have to be interested in what you have to say.  This is an important reason why people with conventional interests seem more socially intelligent.  Even if they don't check whether their audience cares, it probably does.

I imagine that my teenage self would immediately object, "But no one's interested in what I have to say."  My two replies: (1) If that's true, it's still better to keep your thoughts to yourself than antagonize people you're going to see repeatedly.  (2) People will be much more interested in your thoughts if you make marginal adjustments in topics and presentation.

2. Be friendly.  It's not just good advice for libertarians; it's good advice for people.  A strong presumption in favor of kindness and respect almost never hurts you, and often helps you.  Note that I say "presumption."  Don't "wait and see" if people deserve friendly treatment.  Hand it out first, no questions asked.  You will make friends (very good), avoid making enemies (good), and occasionally show undeserved kindness and respect (only mildly bad).

3. Keeping friends is more important than getting your way.  You should think twice before asking anyone for help.  If you still think it's a good idea, try to make your request easy to refuse.  "How would you feel about..." is much better than "Please, please just do me this one favor!"  In the short-run, of course, the pushy approach is often effective.  But life is a repeated game, pushing leads to resentment, and your relationships are more valuable than almost any specific victory.

The world often perceives economists as low in social intelligence.  Maybe we are, but there's no reason for it to be that way.  The insight that good conversation is an exchange should come naturally to the economically literate.  A policy of blanket friendliness ought to make sense to anyone familiar with weakly dominant strategies.  And once you realize that asking for help is an implicit intertemporal trade, the wisdom of restraint and delicacy is easy to see.

Admittedly, if your social intelligence has always been high, my recommendations will strike you as obvious.  If they're so obvious, though, why do so many smart people act like don't know them?

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The author at The Representative Agent in a related article titled Friendliness writes:
    Bryan Caplan at econlog has a very interesting post on social intelligence. He makes the claim that a blanket policy of friendliness to everyone is a weakly dominant strategy.  This cannot be the case because we see people being unfriendly to each othe... [Tracked on June 17, 2009 3:53 PM]
The author at Remaking Modern Society in a related article titled Boosting Your Social Skills writes:
    Nerdy guys' thoughts on human interaction are usually pretty worthless, but Bryan Caplan seems to be one of the exceptions to that rule. Yesterday he posted what might be the best advice for people with poor social skills that I've yet seen. 1. Good conv [Tracked on June 18, 2009 5:45 AM]
COMMENTS (27 to date)
Blackadder writes:

In junior high, I had one real friend, and many overt enemies.

Sounds like the opening line of a novel.

I recently mused about whether being considerate is Pareto-improving. I think you (Caplan) think it is. I do too.

Massimo writes:

I love these posts. Mr Caplan is highly entertaining on these social issues.

Basically, the advice is to put on a public face of submissiveness and politeness. That's a safe strategy if your goal is basic social acceptance.

Economists surely have higher social intelligence than most non-managing non-public office/industry workers. In general people who have to write papers or teach or do consulting have more social skills than those who do obscure technical work at stable long-term jobs.

Eric H writes:

Great post. Reading Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments helped me to think about ways to improve my social skills. In one of the Econtalk podcasts on the book, I think both Russ and Dan Klein say they felt that reading TMS made them feel like better people!

What does Robin Hanson have to say about this? Would he think that improving your social intelligence is the same as becoming a better liar?

David Jinkins writes:

While I am personally always friendly (can't help it, from the midwest), I think there are certainly social advantages to being judiciously mean. Remember the most popular kids back in high school? They knew the right people to be mean to at the right time. Putting others down makes you and your own group look better. The same is true in the world of academic economists. Think of the way that popular, high-profile economists treat other social scientists, especially sociologists, or even rival camps of an internecine ideological divide like new keynesian vs. new classical macro.

While always being friendly might dominate many strategies, I don't think it is weakly dominant in the game of social interaction.

El Presidente writes:


The most basic form of social ineptitude is to say what's on your mind, even though you have no reason to believe your listeners are interested. Even more cloddish: Saying what's on your mind, even though you know that your listeners are not interested.

I would comment on this, but I suspect you would be unreceptive to my remarks. :-)

Constant writes:

Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends has similar advice. It's an easy read and I recommend it to anyone who found this blog entry illuminating.

Justin writes:

My advice: learn to follow the local sports teams. If you can even cultivate a mild interest then you will always have a workable topic of conversation in social gatherings. I know that being able to talk about the Red Sox is very useful when dealing with my inlaws, who I like, but who are also much more sociable than I am. Interestingly enough, I've also become much more of a Red Sox fan. I'm not quite sure how that happened.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

I'd add: don't be defensive. Nothing turns people off than taking a quick offense to some unintented, or even intended, slight. A thick skin makes people more comfortable around you AND highlights you high status as signaled by your confidence.

Another: 'How are you?' is not a question. It's a cue to say something funny or interesting.

Greg Ransom writes:

LBJ understood that you DO ask people for help -- to explain _why_ they helped you, they will believe you are worth the help, and that they like you.

You can over do this, but in early friendship it can be key to locking tight the relationship.

Chris Matthews has written about this central LBJ principle.

Bryan writes:

"Keeping friends is more important than getting your way. You should think twice before asking anyone for help."

eccdogg writes:


My wife takes your advice on learning the local sports teams. She works in a highly male dominated field (Civil Engineering). Before she calls up any client she figures our what school they went to and then ask me about that school's football/baskeball team (I am a big college sports fan). They are allways inpressed that she knows the schools mascot, what conference they are in, their coaches name and if they are good or not.

She then has an instant topic of conversation that it is very likely the other person is interested in too. She picked this up by watching how easily it was for me to converse with other men at dinner parties, because we allways ended up talking sports.

Peter Twieg writes:

How are you inferring that your social intelligence has improved? To what extent might the fact that you've being filtered and/or self-selected into certain social groups which might be more receptive to your thoughts cause an illusion of increased generalized social intelligence?

I ask this because I ponder it some myself. I tend to deal with people who know pretty much everything that I do, and then some, so it's generally difficult for me to impress people by demonstrating interesting knowledge. However, 10 years down the road I'll probably have sufficient mastery of some topics that I'll be able to do this reliably. I wouldn't attribute this to increased social intelligence, however.

A. writes:


your beta-ish strategy is good for making friends but bad for getting laid.

Conor writes:

I disagree.

Bryan's strategy is the social equivalent of buying and holding T-bills: low risk, low reward.

What's the point in having friends if you're too afraid of losing them that you can't ask them to help you move, take in your mail, or help you get a job? A person with whom you share experiences with, but would not ask for (or offer) help if needed is not a friend, s/he an acquaintance. The key to building and maintaining true friendships is to be generous with your offers of favours, and expect the same from others.

Cialdini (or maybe Carnegie) wrote that a great way to get people to like you is to get THEM to do YOU a favour. This works because 1) People will backwards-rationalize that, since they did you a favour, they must like you, and 2)You now owe them a favour. From the perspective of humans evolving cooperative behaviour on a tit-for-tat basis, once someone does a favour for you, they have a vested interest in continuing that relationship. That's a nerdy way of saying they like you.

Also, when you aren't shy about asking people for help when you need it, your life gets a whole lot easier. I'm in full-on impending-graduation job-hunting mode right now, and damned if I'm not tapping everyone I've ever shared a pitcher with for links, info and referrals.

The corollary to this is that you need to make your regular deposits in the "favour bank." This means that in addition to saying "yes" a lot when friends make reasonable requests on your time and resources, you actively seek out things you can do to improve the lives of those you care about. Otherwise you're just a jerk.

Bottom line: Friendships are positive-sum relationships. The more willing you and your friends are to cooperate (i.e exchange favours) the higher the potential gains for both parties.

And since I always practice what I preach, I have two favours to ask of our esteemed hosts and the econlog readership:

1) Could any and all please post links to my nascent econ/policy/entrepreneurship blog, preferably with glowing praise and a prominently-displayed sidebar link? My Statcounter needs a boost if I'm ever going to sell it to Google for 8 figures.

2) I'm currently looking for work in consulting, finance, free-market think thanks, and similar fields. Any Vancouverites out there know someone in need of a freshly-minted econ MA with a solid business background?

Pardon the chutzpah :-)



shecky writes:

I had one real friend, and many overt enemies

Ahh... now I remember you... nerd!

Nick writes:

These are my favorite posts, too.

Great thoughts, as always.

Robb Lutton writes:

You say;
"Admittedly, if your social intelligence has always been high, my recommendations will strike you as obvious. If they're so obvious, though, why do so many smart people act like don't know them?"

Why would you call someone who is unable to discern good strategies for interacting with other people "smart". That would seem to me to be a definition of "stupid".

Snark writes:

You could resort to “micro-expression training” or “mind habits modification” in an attempt to raise your social intelligence, but these types of psychotherapy seem superficial to me. I try to use a game-theoretic approach in interacting with others, what I like to call an extensive-form “4H progression” where the terminal node usually results in peace.

First, be humorous. Humor is a major defense against minor troubles (Mignon McLaughlin). If you can’t be humorous, be honest. No legacy is so rich as honesty (Shakespeare). If you can’t be honest, be hospitable. You should always keep a spare corner in your head to give passing hospitality to a strangers’ opinion (Joseph Joubert). Finally, if you can’t be hospitable, be humble. Humility is the foundation of all other virtues. (St. Augustine).

Peace…the final frontier.

rsj writes:

what about living with high moral character. no matter what anyone says or thinks about you.

Brandon Berg writes:

As I see it, there are at least two distinct ways to be socially incompetent. One is to be utterly oblivious of, or unconcerned with, the way people perceive your behavior, as I gather that you were. Such people tend to be actively disliked, and for them following your advice is likely to lead to an improvement.

The other way is to be overly concerned with the way your words and actions are received. Such people are generally tolerated, since they don't actively antagonize people, but tend not to have many friends because they're too conservative in their interactions with others and thus become socially invisible. Your advice is likely to be counterproductive for such people.

I followed your advice to the letter in my younger days, and my social life was virtually nonexistent. I managed to avoid antagonizing people, but I also managed to avoid attracting more benign forms of attention.

Martin Regnen writes:

Another way to get better at social interaction is to take up music:

Choral music is best for nerdy guys as amateur choirs have a lot of trouble finding enough male voices and are almost always predominantly female. Don't take up the guitar, though, because nobody ever needs a guitarist (which I documented in a couple of posts a few months ago) so you won't get as much ensemble experience or social interaction out of it.

gene hayward writes:

Something I do that seems to pay dividends in terms of my "sociial intelligence", especially when talking to someone on the phone whether a friend or collegue, is the FIRST thing I do is ask them if they have a minute of two to talk...If it is not a pressing issue I find (and have been told) that people will make the time even if they are busy at the moment. I believe it shows I respect their time. I also find they tend to remember to call back more often if I treat their time with respect...Nothing bothers me more than someone calling me and assuming I have 15 minutes to listen (not actually converse)to them...I tend to not pick up the phone if they call back...I never have that problem...My two cents, keep the change...Thanks!

twv writes:

Since I regard sports pretty much as a Baptist preacher's wife regards her husband's anal porn collection, I do not and cannot take the advice to sprinkle my conversations with witless comments on trivial goings-on of uninteresting people.

In its place, for small talk, there's always the weather, which these days is especially funny, what with the campaign against "global warming." There's always a talking point, and there's always a possibility for joviality. In my neck of the woods, anyway, normal folk find religious environmentalism a stitch, and are usually willing to make a few jests at the values they see expressed on TV.

Self-deprecating humor helps, I think. I have always been perceived as smart, and sometimes as forbidding because of this. So, by regularly acknowledging (and lightly jesting about) my own foibles folk are put at ease. This is not to be "untrue to one's own value" as I think Ayn Rand put it; it is to understand the fragility of any goodness, and thus the commonality we all share in our struggles to improve.

"Be friendly" is generally good advice, as is Epicurus's admonishment to "Be cheerful" and "Be curious." Psychologists have shown that even forcing a smile primes the pump of good mood, and smiles and laughter are contagious -- that is, are generally good for reducing social static.

caveat bettor writes:

I'm torn. I'd like my colleagues, neighbors, church members, etc. have high social intelligence. But I am so glad that George Patton and Bill Belichick do not.

To win and to be united are sometimes convergent, other times mutually exclusive.

George writes:


You should really, really read Look Me in the Eye, by John Elder Robison. The author grew up with Asperger's in the 1960s and 70s, and had to figure out a lot of human interaction rationally, on his own. It's hilarious to see the dynamics of social interaction laid out logically, as if by a visiting Martian.

At one point, he describes his amazing discovery that when another kid says, "Look at my new truck!", his answer should have something to do with the truck — the best option being, "Neat! Can I hold it?"

Even aside from the insights, the stories from his life are strange, funny, and wouldn't be remotely realistic enough to be in a work of fiction.

DK writes:

Good post -- your 3 points are right even if some people disagree with the details.

An important step to make these work, though, is to seek out people who share your interests and to step outside your usual circle to do so. Not only will you make more friends, but it will make other interactions easier for two reasons: (1) if you don't have someone to express yourself too, you will have a harder time not expressing yourself to everyone; and (2) having someone who's willing to listen will also develop your listening skills for other contexts.

1. Child is father to the man.
2a. Some of us change a bit over time and
2b. usually attain some wisdom.

It depends on where you went to school. (I am reminded of the scene in Broadcast News where prodigy Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) gets beaten up by his classmates after commencement.) In Cleveland Public, they segregated the smart from the smarter from the smartest. We had Academically Talented and Advanced Placement with the AP kids being the gifteds in the honors and "major work" programs. The other kids picked on major work kids, of course, but among your own cohort, there was no such thing as too smart.

Today, I consider one of my best social skills the ability to recognize someone who is a head taller than I am, and to defer to that. On the other hand, I meet a lot of people who think that everyone else must be as dumb as they are. Sometimes those normals have advanced degrees.

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