Deciphering Intention

by Penny Steen

Researchers at Harvard have discovered that babies as young as nine months old have a sophisticated understanding of social interaction. After watching two puppets make different decisions about how they share their toys, the babies are choosing to interact only with the puppet who shared. This leaves us to surmise that if the ability to detect social skills is present at such an early age, then surely those skills must be vital to our survival both individually and collectively.

The lack of them is one of the reasons many archeologists think the Neanderthals became extinct during the last Ice Age. In preferring to keep themselves in small isolated groups that refused contact with their human “cousins” (and even with groups of their own kind), the Neanderthals did not observe that their “willing-to-share-the-knowledge/toy-with-others” cousins were using animal bones instead of scarce wood to build the dwellings and feed the warming fires that were to keep them from freezing to death. Unlike humans, who can quickly measure the level of someone’s social skills and make decisions about who to include or exclude, the Neanderthals’ limited ability to decipher another’s intent—a crucial social skill—forced them to keep everyone out.

We put great store on our human ability to measure intent (except of course at those times when we’re taken in by hucksters [See this edition’s book review: Influence: the Power of Persuasion] or find ourselves occasionally having to reverse the snap decision we made upon meeting someone new). But what happens if that ability becomes clouded-over by what took place when we went to school for instance?

Let’s say you were one of the unfortunate kids who through no fault of your own, weren’t included in the games and play-groups or invited to the birthday parties. Your reaction? You gave away your skipping-rope, ball, or lunch-box treats too readily in order to be included; or you went the other way and become grabby and belligerent; or you decided to withdraw—into corners, into solitary play…into yourself. Before long, the behaviour you’d chosen became your everyday response to a now, unsafe world.

If you were excluded when you became a teenager (when the desire to be included is stronger than at any time in our lives, and anything that points to us being odd or different from our peers: not having the right clothes; having a spotty complexion; an embarrassing parent—anything that makes us stand-out is regarded as just cause for being excluded), it’s likely your response was much the same. And when you reached the business world? Suffice to say the pit-falls of elementary and high-school had nothing on it, and your habit of offering too much; taking too much; or isolating yourself intensified. If that’s the case, and you’re sick and tired of doing things that old old way, you might want kick-start the change by asking yourself this very simple question: “Do others intend to harm me?”

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