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Study: Strong People Skills, Not Just High IQ's, Needed to Prevent Ecological Disasters

Study: Strong People Skills, Not Just Smarts, Needed to Prevent Ecological Disasters

High IQs won’t be enough to stop an ecological disaster — it’s going to take social intelligence too, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Individuals with high levels of social intelligence have strong “people skills” — for example, they are better at understanding others’ feelings and intentions, and as a result, they tend to be very good at reducing conflict and helping everyone work toward a common goal.

The findings shed light on why some groups are better than other at managing shared resources, such as water or fisheries. And as Earth’s population is growing at a rate that is putting a strain on resources, finding ways to better manage them is critical.

“Especially in the case of common property, there is often an inbuilt tension between what is good for the individual and what is good for the group,” said lead author Dr. Jacopo Baggio, an assistant professor in the University of Central Florida’s Department of Political Science.

“Individuals often have different cognitive abilities. For example, individuals with high general intelligence will be more able to discern patterns and dynamics of resources, and individuals with high social intelligence communicate more effectively and understand the mental state of others.”

For the study, 216 undergraduates from two large U.S. universities played a digital game in which they collected virtual tokens in exchange for actual money.

General intelligence was represented by ACT and SAT scores provided by the universities. Social intelligence was measured via a short story test that estimated the participants’ abilities to infer others’ intentions and feelings.

The participants were randomly placed into one of two experimental conditions: either a game where the conditions began improving and tokens continued to be replenished, or one where conditions began deteriorating and tokens did not regenerate fast enough.

Overall, when groups with high general intelligence, but low social intelligence, faced a situation where resources became scarce, they depleted resources faster, harvested less potential resources and pushed the ecosystem to its limits.

But when both general and social intelligence were high, teams harvested a greater percentage of potential resources and kept the ecosystem from collapsing.

General intelligence helped people figure out the rules of the game and how to regenerate resources (in this case digital tokens), while social intelligence helped people cooperate to optimize performance, said Dr. Thomas Coyle, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“In theory, people with higher levels of social intelligence are more effective in reducing conflict among group members and in getting people to work toward common goals,” Coyle said. “Such people skills are important for managing shared resources.”

The work points to a need for education in diverse types of intelligence.

“It suggests that our education systems should focus on cultivating both general and social intelligence to better equip groups to deal with complex, social-ecological challenges,” said co-author Dr. Jacob Freeman, an assistant professor of anthropology at Utah State University.

Source: University of Central Florida


Study: Strong People Skills, Not Just Smarts, Needed to Prevent Ecological Disasters

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2019). Study: Strong People Skills, Not Just Smarts, Needed to Prevent Ecological Disasters. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 9 Mar 2019 (Originally: 9 Mar 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 9 Mar 2019
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