Trading Social Skills for Other Abilities

on Apr 8, 2010

We’ve all known those people: the very intelligent and creative but otherwise either not-very-social or socially awkward, sometimes understood as geeks. You might even be one of these people! I surmised that there was some sort of inverse correlation between the social skills and other technical abilities. After all, there’s a large amount of brain resources required by social tasks. Hence the potential tradeoff between social ability and other “thinking” ability.

At a recent TED talk (video above), Temple Grandin confirms this relationship by discussing the autism spectrum (which by her definition, and mine, extends beyond Asperger’s, to the not-so-social geeky types). A very striking note is that, for the most part, those on the spectrum don’t have a disorder, but rather a different way of understanding and interpreting the world. (However autistic spectrum individuals that do not speak or cannot function in our society do need treatment.)

This TED talk actually blew me away (and I’ve watched it several more times since). It really explains much of what we see in the world (or may experience ourselves) regarding the different ways people solve problems, and how they also handle themselves in social environments. In essence, there is a limited amount of brain processing power available. Humans, as social creatures, would be an advantage to have specialized social wiring. But at the same time, the complex human world requires solving some very involved problems. An individual with this ability would also be at an advantage. The limit of brain power presents a dilemma. So we see “all kinds of minds” where some individuals are very good at dealing with people while others are good at handling other sorts of complex tasks, and of course people falling along all levels of the scale. (It’s unclear whether individuals are more born this way or turn out this way.)

This has a lot to say about how people interpret the world and how they learn. It seems that the geeky types may be more visually oriented or perhaps more hands-on oriented. They’re the types that might be good at some kinds of math, or music, or recognizing patterns. Some can run virtual simulations in their heads. Many appear to be more bottom up learners, where they need to put together all the details before understanding the bigger picture. Temple has even said that some of the above belong in Silicon Valley, since they make great programmers.

There’s so much more to say on this entire subject. Temple’s talk has really opened up a new world to the way I look at people and their abilities. It all comes down to tradeoffs. Especially considering the great depth of the human world, different kinds of minds are needed to make the incredible human progress. Check out the talk and it’ll really get your mind thinking about this. You’ll surely see it all over the real world, and perhaps even in yourself.