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People Who Are Great at Reading Social Cues Are Also Great With the Internet

Some people are better at navigating cocktail parties, family gatherings, and office meetings. And, as it turns out, they are better at the Internet, too.

That’s the word from Anita Woolley, a professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University. She’s been studying what it takes for groups to make smart decisions online, and her latest research unearthed a surprising discovery: People who were good at reading emotional cues face-to-face also happened to be pretty good at reading these cues in online discussions.

Even without seeing the other person’s face, they were able to read other’s mental states online, where misunderstanding can easily occur. And if you include these people in your online groups, your group will be smarter, too.

Scientists refer to this ability as “theory of mind.” There’s even a test for the thing. It’s called the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, and it’s hard. You look at close-up photos of dozens of sets of eyes and try to determine whether the person is angry, despondent, jealous, panicked, or in some other state. “People who have this are able to represent what others are thinking or feeling based on subtle cues,” says Woolley. “What this enables somebody to do is to really fill in the blanks for somebody.”

According to researchers, if a group is filled with people who are good at this, it’s collectively smarter than groups who are not. And Woolley’s study shows this is true in the chat room as well as the board room.

This suggests that the way we figure out what other people are thinking may be deeper than we previously thought. And for managers and online group moderators, there’s a lesson here: It’s better to pad the group with good listeners rather than brainiacs.

In a sense, that’s one of the operating principles governing the online question-and-answer website, Quora, which is merciless toward trolls and even people who simply have to get the last word in during any discussion. “If you let jerks run the show, then they drive out everyone who is reasonable,” says Marc Bodnick, Quora’s community team manager.

In the online context, people who are strong at theory of mind are better at interpreting emoticon-free text, and even silence. “One of the toughest things to interpret in online communities is silence,” Woolley says. “When you don’t hear from somebody, [you wonder] ‘Are they offended by what I said, are they mad at me, do they not know the answer, or are they on vacation?’ ”

And beware blowhards. People who make your online groups smarter are the ones who will tend to draw colleagues out in discussions, too. As the research shows, “how damaging it is if all you’re hearing from are one or two people and there are a bunch of people you’re not hearing from at all,” Woolley says.

Oh, and there’s one more important contributing factor when it comes to collective intelligence. Groups that have more women, she says, also tend to be smarter. Women, on average, score higher on the theory of mind test, Woolley says, “so when you have more women in the group, you raise the average.”

This post originally appeared in WIRED.

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