Social intelligence, education, & the workplace

David McClel­land pub­lished an in­fluen­tial ar­ti­cle (1973) claiming that IQ tests have no value, be­cause they do not cor­re­late with suc­cess and it is not clear that they mea­sure any­thing other than so­cial sta­tus. McClel­land opened up a new dis­cus­sion of whether tests pre­dict ca­reer suc­cess, and whether the pur­pose of ed­u­ca­tion is so­cial in­vest­ment or so­cial re­for­ma­tion (why would we even want to sin­gle out chil­dren with high IQs if those are the chil­dren we want not to ed­u­cate, in or­der to level the play­ing field?)

This work is con­tro­ver­sial, maybe even more so to­day than in the 1980s. (Bar­rett & Depinet 1991) ac­cused McClel­land of sim­ply ly­ing, by not men­tion­ing most stud­ies that dis­agreed with his con­clu­sions and mis­rep­re­sent­ing the re­sults of those he did quote.

But in all this time, no one has asked the most-im­por­tant ques­tion: Should we try to make (other peo­ple’s) chil­dren more suc­cess­ful? And should we de­liber­ately pro­mote chil­dren be­cause they’re likely to be suc­cess­ful?

(If the an­swer is yes, per­haps we should fo­cus on giv­ing more op­por­tu­ni­ties to chil­dren of the wealthy, since parental wealth is the strongest cor­re­late with ca­reer suc­cess.)

A close look at (Bar­rett & Depinet 1991) sug­gests that, when so­cial class is fac­tored out, IQ cor­re­lates well with ob­jec­tive mea­sures of perfor­mance, such as em­ployee eval­u­a­tions, rat­ings of work sam­ples, and pro­duc­tion quan­tity, but poorly with mea­sures of ca­reer suc­cess such as job ti­tle and salary. So­cial in­tel­li­gence is thus the stuff that im­proves your ca­reer but not your perfor­mance. That sounds sus­pi­ciously like it’s skills that help you put one over on your co-work­ers.

Suc­cess is a zero-sum game. It’s mea­sured by your po­si­tion and wealth rel­a­tive to other peo­ple. It makes sense for a prep school or col­lege to ad­ver­tise that they will make you more suc­cess­ful. It doesn’t make sense for a tax­payer-funded school sys­tem to do so. Public school is funded by the pub­lic in or­der to benefit the pub­lic. The pub­lic wants perfor­mance, not ca­reer suc­cess, from you.

It’s no para­dox that IQ cor­re­lates more with perfor­mance than with suc­cess. So­cial in­tel­li­gence does won­ders for your ca­reer suc­cess. Peo­ple with high so­cial in­tel­li­gence are able to drive their (of­ten stupid) ideas through com­mit­tees by us­ing coal­i­tion-build­ing and hate-mon­ger­ing, as well as sar­casm, dis­mis­sive hu­mor, emo­tion­ally-laden jar­gon (“death tax”), dis­trac­tion, and a fine sense of when they can use ar­gu­ment by as­sump­tion. They are the peo­ple who get grants by schmooz­ing, play­ing off the prej­u­dices of the re­view panel, and snappy data-free Pow­erPoint pre­sen­ta­tions. They are the artists who paint a can­vas black and then pub­lish a three-page ex­pla­na­tion of how that is a crit­i­cism of art con­sumerism. They are good at get­ting raises, bonuses, and pro­mo­tions, and at tak­ing credit for other peo­ple’s work. They are the peo­ple who are ru­in­ing sci­ence and art.

Think that a boss with high so­cial in­tel­li­gence will make your work more pleas­ant and re­solve con­flicts with your co-work­ers? Maybe. Or maybe that boss will strate­gi­cally cre­ate con­flicts to foster com­pe­ti­tion, and use their su­pe­rior so­cial in­tel­li­gence to make you work harder and longer for less pay.

(There is an un­der­ly­ing as­sump­tion be­hind how all this test­ing is ap­plied that the same skills make a per­son a good worker and a good man­ager. I’m not even go­ing to touch that ques­tion, es­pe­cially since be­hind it lies the even harder ques­tion, “A man­ager good for whom, the com­pany or the worker?”)

It can make sense to teach so­cial skills to peo­ple who lack them, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to fast-track peo­ple for hav­ing com­pet­i­tive skills at zero-sum con­tests. Teach­ing ev­ery­one skills that would max­i­mize their in­di­vi­d­ual com­pet­i­tive­ness if no one else has those skills may have no net effect. Put­ting peo­ple into gifted pro­grams or ad­mit­ting them into more-elite col­leges be­cause they have high so­cial skills might mean that peo­ple with higher in­tel­li­gence (and bet­ter ideas) will have a harder time get­ting their views heard. Give me a work­place full of stut­ter­ing nerds with pocket pro­tec­tors, not con­niv­ing ma­nipu­la­tors.

So­cial skills may be an im­por­tant and over­looked part of ed­u­ca­tion. But we shouldn’t un­crit­i­cally over­haul our ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem with­out look­ing care­fully at what we’re max­i­miz­ing for.


Ger­ald Bar­rett, Robert Depinet (1991). A re­con­sid­er­a­tion of test­ing for com­pe­tence rather than for in­tel­li­gence. Amer­i­can Psy­chol­o­gist 46(10), Oct 1991, 1012-1024.

David C. McClel­land (1973). Test­ing for com­pe­tence rather than for “in­tel­li­gence”. Amer­i­can Psy­chol­o­gist 28(1), Jan 1973, 1-14. doi: 10.1037/​h0034092.

David Payne, Pa­trick Kyl­lo­nen (2012). The role of noncog­ni­tive skills in aca­demic suc­cess. Pre­sented at 21st Cen­tury knowl­edge and skills: the new cur­ricu­lum and the fu­ture of as­sess­ment. Los An­ge­les, Cal­ifor­nia, Jan­uary 11-13, 2012.