Brain power

Myth-busting: How believing smart people to be socially stunted could be costing you and your business

Originally published in ScienceForWork.

Key points:

  1. The belief that highly intelligent people lack social skills is a common stereotype, but recent research suggests it is more likely a myth than an informative stereotype.
  2. Findings suggest that smarter people tend to be better at accurately interpreting and responding to the social and emotional cues of others.
  3. By using objective data, working to overcome biases, communicating better, and recognizing the importance of different forms of intelligence and their contributions to performance on the job organizations and the people that comprise them stand a much better chance of success.

Do you believe that highly intelligent people are socially stunted? If so, you certainly wouldn’t be alone in assuming this stereotype. Many people believe that those who are smart or who are highly intelligent tend to be lost at sea where it comes to social skills, believing they lack interpersonal sense and sensitivity. This belief has persisted for centuries, and I have even personally encountered the odd uninformed organizational psychologist – someone specializing in human thought, feeling, and behaviour as applied to the workplace – who still believes that smarts and social skills are at odds with one another. In fact, it’s the ubiquitousness of this stereotype and its intransigent nature that’s motivated me to write on this subject. Thankfully, you don’t have to take my word alone on this matter. Recent research has indicated that this belief is more likely a myth than an informative and explanatory stereotype. In this article, I want to give you all a little taste of the most compelling research dispelling this myth while letting you in on precisely why holding onto this debunked stereotype could be quite costly in the end.

Intelligence and interpersonal sensitivity

A meta-analysis1 conducted by Nora A. Murphy and Judith A. Hall investigated the association between general intelligence and interpersonal sensitivity. Interpersonal sensitivity refers to the ability to accurately decode social cues, such as facial expressions and tone of voice, and understand their intended meaning. It’s a landmark feature of emotional intelligence and can be incredibly helpful in helping you to understand and communicate with others. Nora and Judith’s review involved 38 independent samples with nearly 3,000 total participants. The study found a small-to-medium effect for intelligence measures to be positively correlated with decoding accuracy (r = .19, p < .001). In other words, smarter people tended to be better at accurately interpreting and responding to the social and emotional cues of others.

It is important to note that significant moderators were found to include the type of decoding judgment (emotion vs. intended meaning judgments), decoding channel (audio-only vs. audio-plus-video channel), and target gender (both male-and-female targets vs. female-only targets having their emotions evaluated). This means that the association between general intelligence and interpersonal sensitivity can vary depending on the specific context of the social interaction. Nevertheless, the study’s findings suggest that cognitive abilities comprising general intelligence are part of the social skillset required for decoding emotions accurately.

All of this is important in a business context in the sense that you want to be putting highly skilled people into roles that they’re likely to thrive within. If you hold the stereotyped belief that smart people are likely to be socially stunted, you’re likely to be passing over highly qualified candidates for roles they’re actually well suited to perform within. Ultimately this sort of thinking can result in losses grounded in bias and unfounded assumptive stereotypes. Although this is far from the only instance where bias and stereotypes can harm businesses and the individuals within them, it’s certainly something we can actively avoid through awareness and a dedicated effort to combat faulty cognitive shortcuts of thinking.

Take-aways for you and your practice

These research findings have practical implications for leaders, managers, and individuals looking to improve their interpersonal skills. Leaders and managers can take advantage of these research findings by creating an environment that encourages and rewards intelligence of all sorts and that recognizes and accepts people for their unique contributions. They can try to combat their own biases and ensure that they’re using objective indicators of fit to judge people a prospective candidate for available positions within their organization. They can also ensure that their followers have the necessary time, energy, and other resources to develop their social and cognitive abilities as it’s likely to help them to perform better within their role. General intelligence is found to increase with additional years of academic training and validated emotional intelligence training programs can be a great tool to develop social skills.

Organizations can take advantage of these research findings by ensuring that people are being evaluated and placed into roles that they’re likely to excel within. One way to avoid the impact of such biases as these is to simply measure people’s abilities and skills to ensure you actually have a good idea how they’d perform rather than by relying on presumptive assumptions. There are many reliable and valid emotional intelligence assessments that are able to provide you with evidence as to the knowledge, skills, and abilities one has relevant to social settings. Even if someone doesn’t happen to score highly in emotional intelligence, it doesn’t have to be a prohibiting factor so long as it doesn’t prevent them from performing effectively and so long as they aren’t willing to try to develop it. Organizations can invest in emotional intelligence training to fill these gaps.

Non-managing members of organizations can also benefit from these research findings by challenging their own biases. They may also reflect and recognize how their own intelligence (general and social) impacts their work and how they perform in their role. The bridge between people with differences of all sorts is often through effective communication. People who speak differently from one another often have to work more deliberately and a bit harder to work more effectively with one another. When they don’t work so hard or deliberately to promote such communication, misunderstandings and assumptions are often made and it may work to perpetuate stereotypes like these. Even if we have to meet people where they are in terms of social and general intelligence, everyone can still strive to be better at their deliberate communication and active listening to accommodate for the natural differences we encounter in our work communities.

The idea that smart people are socially stupid is a myth that’s not entirely supported by the available evidence. In fact, there’s good evidence to suggest that the cognitive abilities comprising general intelligence are related to interpersonal sensitivity, which is the ability to accurately interpret and respond to the social and emotional cues of others – a landmark feature of emotional intelligence. By using objective data, working to overcome biases, communicating better, and recognizing the importance of different forms of intelligence organizations and the people that comprise them stand a much better chance of success.

Trustworthiness score:

The trustworthiness of the study is moderate (80%). This means there is a 20% chance that alternative explanations for the effect found are possible.


ScienceForWork is an independent, non-profit foundation of evidence-based practitioners who want to make work better. Its mission is to provide decision-makers with trustworthy and useful insights from the science of organizations and people management.

Article source: The article Myth-Busting: How Believing Smart People to be Socially Stunted Could be Costing You and Your Business is published by ScienceForWork under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Header image source: Created by Bruce Boyes with Perchance AI Photo Generator.


  1. Murphy, N. A., & Hall, J. A. (2011). Intelligence and interpersonal sensitivity: A meta-analysis. Intelligence, 39(1), 54-63.
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Aaron Halliday

Aaron has a passion for understanding people and helping them reach their maximum potential. He works as a consultant and executive and life coach and is the founder of Prometheus Works Inc. His work has contributed to the advancement of Fortune 500 businesses in a diverse array of sectors ranging from building materials to financial services and pharmaceuticals. His work has impacted domains of talent, leadership, strategy, culture, organizational wellness and operational effectiveness. He has conducted studies on resilience, mindfulness, trauma and overcoming adversity in and out of the workplace as well as how to effectively use use various bio data indicators and a wide range of personality traits and characteristics to predict work-related outcomes such as innovative tendency, job satisfaction, job dedication, organizational citizenship, organizational support, counterproductive work behaviors, burnout, and turnover intentions. His background in applying science and the scientific method in business contexts combined with experience applying evidence-based insights to achieve targeted objectives has honed his skills in collecting data fast, deriving insights quickly, and using these evidence-based insights to propose, develop, and implement tools and solutions useful for a wide range of business purposes including HR/people operations, business development, learning and development, change management, and more.

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