Social Intelligence: 5 Mental Gifts to Succeed in Society

Social intelligence is the ability to know oneself and to know others in order to evaluate our own and other people’s actions properly. It is composed of five capacities; sympathy, self-awareness, empathy, meta-cognition and theory of mind. Those who lack social intelligence might misunderstand others with potentially tragic consequences.

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the full story
Car crash story

On February 22, 2022, a car crash in Chicago escalated when one of the two drivers pulled a gun and shot the other one in the leg. 

While we don’t know much about the suspect, we can assume that she had, at that instant, limited capacity for sympathy, self-awareness, empathy, meta-cognition and theory of mind. In short, she could have lacked social intelligence and misinterpreted the incident as a deliberate attack. 

what is social intelligence?
What is SI

Social intelligence is the capacity to know oneself and to know others — sometimes referred to as “tact”, “common sense”, or “street smarts”. It’s an innate human trait of neurotypical minds, that gets refined through experience with people, and learning from success and failure in social settings. Five distinct cognitive skills are at its core. 

5 core cognitive skills

Sympathy is our tendency to feel with others. Parents naturally sympathize with their child. And babies experience stress when their mothers are sad. As we grow up, most of us show a lot of sympathy for our family, some for our close circle of friends and less for strangers. 

Self awareness

Self-awareness is the ability to understand our feelings.Toddlers that indicate they are hungry display that capacity. If they throw tantrums, it’s often because they don’t understand their emotions. Although some are explicitly told not to express what they feel.

As we get older we gain better self-awareness. Some people remain confused by their feelings because they have learned to suppress them.


Empathy is our ability to understand what others are feeling. Some children begin to show empathy as early as kindergarten. Others seem to lack this ability even when they are far older.

Through years of social experiences we can refine our empathy. But those who never quite learned to understand their own emotions, may also never learn to sense the feelings of others.

Meta Cognition

Metacognition is an awareness of one’s own thought processes. At age 4 most children display the first forms of metacognitive skills when they begin to show what they know and what they don’t know. Soon after they learn to assess their level of confidence in their own knowledge.

As adults, many of us get to know our brain and learn that one of its jobs is to bring order to an inherently chaotic world of fact and fiction. Some, however, get trapped in the stories and lies they tell themselves to be true. They don’t see that their minds can get stuck in a web of biases. They remain unaware that they may be wrong about certain assumptions.

Theory of mind

Theory of mind is our ability to understand what others know and how they think. Children start to demonstrate theory of mind around the age of 6. They then realize that others may have different information, and as a result draw different conclusions. This often leads to more empathy.  As adults, theory of mind allows us to understand another person’s perspective and their pattern of thought. Which makes it a powerful skill for influencing others.

So sympathy, and self-awareness help us to understand our emotions and meta-cognition our thoughts. They provide us with knowledge about ourselves. 

Empathy allows us to appreciate what others feel and theory of mind what goes on in their heads: they allow us to understand others. 

social intelligence facts
SI Facts

Social intelligence is always formed within a particular culture, which means we might be clueless when put into a new social setting. So while all 5 aspects are universally present, they need to be refined for each particular society. Animals, by the way, show sympathy and empathy. Chimps even show a rudimentary ability for theory of mind. Humans, however, are the most socially intelligent of all species.

what do you think?
SI What do u think

What do you think? Where does our high social intelligence come from and how could we develop the five traits further to increase our understanding of each other? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 


Dig deeper!

  • How well can you read the emotions of others just by looking at their eyes? Find out and compare yourself to others with this free Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test.
  • Read more about the Empathy Quotient (EQ), a 60-item questionnaire designed to measure empathy in adults. The test was developed by Simon Baron-Cohen at ARC (the Autism Research Centre) at the University of Cambridge.
  • Puppet play exercise for young children: Show children at the age of 2-8 a doll with a lollipop, an owl and three coloured boxes. The doll then puts the lollipop into a blue box and leaves. Unbeknownst to the doll, the owl shows up and moves the lollipop from the blue box into a red box. Then the owl leaves, the doll returns and asks the children where the doll would look for the lollipop. While young children are guessing, older children understand that the doll has a false belief and point out that she will look for the treat in the blue box. Learn about the Anne Test for Theory of Mind or watch this short 4 minute video about it. 

Classroom activity

Prepare pieces of dark chocolate and in class then tell the students that they are going to do what is called the “Bitter-Sweet Experience”. Have them all sit in a circle and then tell them that they get a piece of chocolate. So they should open their hands and close their eyes. After they sit there, eyes closed, hands open, for 1-2 minutes walk around in the circle and give everyone one piece of chocolate. Then ask them to open their eyes and then one of the others to share what they thought would happen and why. You and all the other students may learn that each one of them might have different expectations going through the very same exercise. Some might have expected nothing, others 2 pieces of chocolate. Oftentimes such expectations can be linked to memories of their childhood. The exercise teaches self-awareness and meta-cognition and shows that even though we are all in the same group and probably experience sympathy, our understanding of what others may feel (empathy) or think (theory of mind) is limited. 


  • Script: Jonas Koblin 
  • Artist: Pascal Gaggelli
  • Voice: Matt Abbott
  • Coloring: Nalin
  • Editing: Peera Lertsukittipongsa
  • Sound Design: Miguel Ojeda
  • Production:  Selina BadorFact checking: Ludovico Di Chanaz

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