Social Sensitivity a Key to Group Intellect

What is the key component to a group’s results on solving problems?

You’d think intellect of the various group members, right? Smarter people are more likely to be able to solve a problem effectively, right?So if you are putting together a group, and you’re wanting them to solve a problem, the best way to get them to do this best is to get a bunch of intellectually bright people together, right? Or even, just one really really smart person in the group who can solve the problem, while the others sit back and smile.


Nope. Wrong. The best way to get a group to be most effective at solving problems is to have a group whose members each rate highly in “social sensitivity”…Social sensitivity being how well group members perceive each others emotions.

Carnegie Mellon University did a study with 699 people who were placed in groups of 2-5 people and asked them to try a variety of tasks that ranged from visual puzzles to negotiations, brainstorming, games and complex rule-based design assignments.

They found that groups that performed well at one kind of task tended to perform better on other kinds of tasks…that “effective groups” perform well across a variety of tasks. There is a general effectiveness which predicts a group’s performance in many situations.

However, in individual people, the determining factor that creates this effectiveness is cognitive intelligence.

In groups, the determining factor was how well the groups worked together. In groups where one person dominated, the group was less collectively intelligent than in groups where the conversational turns were more evenly distributed. “Moreover, the researchers found that the performance of groups was not primarily due to the individual abilities of the group’s members. For instance, the average and maximum intelligence of individual group members did not significantly predict the performance of their groups overall.”

As the researchers dug through the data, they found a related pattern that they hadn’t been looking for. Teams that had a higher number of women demonstrated a greater social sensitivity and therefore, also demonstrated higher collective intelligence than groups that didn’t have as many women on them.

This result, I suspect, is rather humbling for the male gender, who have dominated board rooms, and chaired many work teams in our collective past. Women, with their greater ability to have social sensitivity, help groups solve problems more effectively…the groups perform better, and look “smarter”.

So, while I found this quite interesting, my brain starting doodling with it…the groups were made of 2-5 members…hmmm….a marriage is made up of 2 members…hmmm…a marriage is a “group” (albeit a small uniquely formed group with special features) with one female in each group.

And it brought home something that I’ve heard multiple women express concern over…many women feel responsible for maintaining the relationship.

  • Women are likely to be the ones calling the marriage counsellor, or
  • doing the research for couple counselling, even if it is the husband’s idea.
  • Women notice coolness or decreased intimacy in the relationship and address it…so they pursue the husband for a conversation.

Feels lousy for her.

Feels lousy for him.

Seems a bit of a conundrum…we therapists like to work to have couples meet together to cooperate collaboratively, and to become a well functioning team because both are engaged in making it meaningful for each other…yet, women, on the balance, have a greater level of social sensitivity. They are likely to pick up on the fact that there may be an issue that interferes with maximal marriage quality…and then become the “project manager” to lead it, even as they seek to engage and include the male partner to be a part of the solution.

I get that many men have a high level of social sensitivity.I don’t want to stereotype genders here, but I do want to raise the point that the quality of the “marital working group of 2” may be compromised because of a lack of “social sensitivity”. Statistically, the marital team member with a lack of social sensitivity is likely to be the male.

I realize, being a woman, that I could be seen as being unfair to men.

That is NOT my intent.

Rather, it is to encourage men who read this and wonder about their level of social sensitivity to do some skill development…read some books, watch some videos, have some marital conversations.

I’ve worked with men to coach them to higher levels of “social sensitivity”, doing some teaching to help them develop skills in understanding and expressing that understanding, having them talk about matters, and gently helping them develop greater insight in social situations—particularly in their marriages. It is my personal experience when men develop a greater ability to understand others and respond out of that understanding, that it makes a big difference to the relationship.

For a guy to do this, it requires HUGE vulnerability, something that guys struggle with…for very good reason.

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.  Oh yes, it’s very worth it.

Hey men…you’re welcome to comment to add to the conversation!

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