A new study finds that when we are taught to identify and understand our own inner parts, or sub-personalities — such as the “inner manager” or the “inner child” we become far more understanding of the mental states of others, essentially increasing our levels of social intelligence and empathy.
For three months, 161 adult participants aged 20 to 55 were split into two groups and taught how to develop their perspective-taking skills through a variety of methods. The training was based on the Internal Family Systems model which views the self as being composed of different complex inner parts, each with its own defining set of behaviors, thoughts and emotions.
In this approach, each part may be identified as having a healthy and productive role or an extreme role, but each is still validated and recognized as important.
During the study, participants were taught to identify and label their own sub-personalities, as well as those of others. The findings show that after training, the participants could easily identify prototypical inner parts such as “the inner manager” or “the inner child” in their own personalities.
The degree to which participants improved their understanding of themselves, as reflected in the number of different inner parts they could identify, directly correlated with how well they improved in terms of their own flexibility and ability to accurately infer and understand the mental state of others.
In fact, the more negative inner parts they could identify in themselves, the better their awareness and understanding of other people’s negative frames of mind.
“There is a close link between getting better in understanding oneself and improvement in social intelligence,” said Dr. Anne Böckler of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science. Böckler conducted the study with Julius Maximilians University Würzburg in Germany.
The realization that people who learn to better identify negative aspects of themselves are better able to understand others has interesting implications for our ever-changing world, according to the researchers.
“This insight could prove important in an increasingly complex and interconnected world where taking the view of others, especially those from different cultures or with different religious backgrounds, becomes ever more difficult — and ever more necessary,” Böckler said.
The study suggests that taking the time to identify and understand our own inner mental states holds promise in therapeutic as well as non-clinical settings, all of which aim to foster psychological health and social intelligence.
The findings are published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement.