Social intelligence, education, & the workplace

by PhilGoetz 2 min read2nd May 201331 comments


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.