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Your IQ's High, But Do You Have Social Intelligence?

What is social intelligence, and how do you get it?

Key points

  • Social intelligence is the ability to understand others and to act wisely in social situations.
  • Social intelligence is made up of a combination of different abilities, including conversational and listening skills and impression management.
  • One can develop social intelligence with hard work and by paying attention to, and learning to analyze, social interactions.

A century of psychological research shows that possessing high levels of general intelligence (represented by the intelligence quotient, or IQ) is advantageous, leading to better academic performance and success in jobs. However, there is another type of intelligence that is also associated with success in life, and that is social intelligence.

In 1920, psychologist Edward Thorndike defined social intelligence as the ability to understand and manage others and act wisely in social situations. While IQ is mostly inborn, social intelligence is developed over time, through experience interacting with people in different social situations. Another way to think about social intelligence is “street smarts” or “common sense”—it’s what savvy individuals pick up about how to manage oneself and others in social situations.

Emotional intelligence—the ability to communicate emotionally and understand the dynamics of human emotions—is a subset of the larger domain of social intelligence. Let’s look at the components of social intelligence:

  1. Conversational skills: A socially intelligent person learns how to engage others in interesting and stimulating conversations. They are tactful in what they say and keep the conversation interesting and within the bounds of what is appropriate for the given social situation.
  2. Listening skills: The socially intelligent person is a great listener, truly paying attention to what others say, and letting them know that they are understood. As a result, others may come away from an interaction with a socially intelligent person feeling as if they made a good connection with them.
  3. Public speaking skills: Our research has found that socially intelligent people have more experience in public speaking, they are more likely to have been elected to an office, and they are more likely to be in positions of leadership (Riggio & Carney, 2003).
  4. Knowledge of Social Interactions: Socially intelligent people know how to play various social roles, and they are good at it. They also better understand the unspoken “social rules,” or norms, that govern social interaction. Socially intelligent people will study formal social interactions in the way that an actor might study a script—learning what is appropriate and inappropriate when interacting with different types of people. Because of this, if a socially intelligent person has the opportunity to interact with people of different cultures and ethnicities, they are also better able to be culturally aware and sensitive.
  5. Understanding Others’ Motivations (and Emotions): Those high in social intelligence are great people-watchers. They attune themselves to what others are saying, and to how they are behaving, in order to “read” what the other person is thinking or feeling. As mentioned earlier, emotional intelligence can be seen as both a correlate and a subset of social intelligence.
  6. Impression Management: Socially intelligent individuals monitor and control their behavior to try to make positive impressions on others. However, they also try to strike a balance between managing their image and being reasonably “authentic,” so that others can see their true self.

How can you develop social intelligence?

It takes effort and hard work. Begin by paying more attention to the social world around you. Work on becoming a better speaker or conversationalist. Networking organizations, or speaking groups, such as Toastmasters, are good at helping develop basic communication skills. Take an acting or improv course. Work on becoming a more effective listener through what is called “active listening,” where you reflect back what you believe the speaker said in order to ensure clear understanding. Most importantly, study social situations and your own behavior. Learn from your social successes and failures. (Riggio & Merlin, 2012).


Thorndike, E. L. (1920). Intelligence and its uses. Harper's Magazine,

140, 227-235.

Riggio, R.E., & Thorne, D. (2004). Social intelligence. In Burns, J.M., Goethals, W., & Sorenson, G. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Leadership, Vol. 2 (pp. 726-729). Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Riggio, R.E., & Carney, D.C. (2003). Manual for the Social Skills Inventory (2nd ed.). Redwood City, CA: MindGarden.

Riggio, R.E. & Merlin, R. (2012). Guide for social skill training and development. Redwood City, CA: MindGarden.

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