Decades of social science research has demonstrated that one of the greatest predictors of happiness and strongest buffers of stress is social support. In a world where artificial intelligence and automation loom large many parents are talking about how to best prepare our children for an uncertain future where machines will become a dominant force in our everyday lives. The answer may in fact still be our ability to connect with others and build social support.  

While attending the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year Forum in Monte Carlo, Monaco I had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with Dr. Vivienne Ming, PhD, neuroscientist and Co-founder and Executive Chair of Socos the company behind the Muse child development program. One of the topics we covered was the importance of social skills and how strong social skills will play an increasingly more important role in life success, particularly in an automated world where artificial intelligence will become ever present. 

The ability to connect with and influence others has always been critical to life success. Ming, who conducts research on social interaction and artificial intelligence among many other areas, believes that as more and more of our physically intensive labor becomes automated it’s inevitable that even lower-level jobs will demand more creativity and human interaction. Thus, even in a world of artificial intelligence social skills will be critical to success.  

According to Ming social skills are “interveneable” and not necessarily fixed or set for life. She notes that the things you are born into or born with are not really things that can be changed through intervention. For example, Ming explains that, “Your zip code that you were born in is very predictive of long-term outcomes. That’s a social justice issue, but it’s not something I can change about you. How tall you are, I suppose technically we could intervene on that. Your gender, far be it for me to say that it can’t change. But it’s not something you would want me to arbitrarily change about you so that you could earn more money.” In addition, we also know many aspects of general cognitive ability like working memory span, numeracy, and literacy, are causally related to positive life outcomes. However, Ming points out that the potential for realistically addressing these is within the first five to eight years of life. So, when we look at the skills that are predictive but also trainable in adulthood, we tend to find roughly four remaining categories: social skills, metacognition, creativity and what Ming describes as a cornucopia of personality (motivation, purpose, and mindset).

“Looking specifically at social skills, of which there are many, we have clarity of mind, we have perspective taking, the ability to read people’s emotions, all of them are related” explains Ming. Many of these constructs are likely not independent of one another, but they’ve emerged out of the research literature and so we tend to treat them as such. In her research Ming has found that a simple, yet critical, element of a social skill that people develop is the ability to predict linguistic patterns. Although this is considered a soft skill Ming has demonstrated some very objective measures for measuring this so-called soft social skill, such as inter-speaker interval. In other words, “How long does it take for you to form a response when we’re in the middle of discourse? How much are you nodding, interjecting and coming in at just the right moments” asks Ming. As it turns out people who are reacting within 200 milliseconds (the time it would roughly take for the sensory information of someone’s utterance to reach your cortex) are actually predicting where you are going with the conversation before you finish your thought and are thus able to respond faster and maintain a faster paced rhythm of conversation.

Ming notes that at a deeper level we can look at factors like the degree to which you are able to integrate what I’m saying into your responses as well as the timing and nature of your facial reactions. In other words: “To what degree am I attending to you? To what degree am I evidencing facial cues that are responsive to the content of what you’re saying?” Ming notes.

The ability to read someone and stay on pace is critical to creating a successful social interaction. Staying on pace requires being present and actively paying attention to the multitude of cues in front of you, so as to continually learn and integrate those patterns into your thinking. Let’s face it, we can all stand to be a little more present and active in our conversations, particularly at work.

The challenge will be teaching our young ones to balance their ever growing impersonal digital interactions (increasingly with gamified AI) with their physical human interactions, so as to continually sharpen this skill. As long as humans are in the equation, the ability to effectively connect with and influence others will be a critical differentiator. It’s going to be a matter of filtering the noise and distractions of constant digital interference that will come in the form of games.

In closing Ming noted that, “One of my favorite pieces of research is from a computational linguist who analyzed the speeches of famous historical leaders and found sure enough 21st century social skills were incredibly valuable even in the 16th century.” The human need to connect with others has and always will be a part of who we are. As work continues to become more automated our value will really be in our ability to connect, collaborate, and create. All of which will require strong social skills. It will be up to us to make sure we teach our young to manage their digital distractions and hone their skills in the art and science of connecting with their fellow humans!