In many ways, your brain functions a lot better when you’re younger.
Your ability to process new information peaks around age 18 and then declines rapidly. Your working memory is strongest in your mid-20s.
And yet in other ways, you’re getting progressively smarter throughout early and mid-adulthood.
Recent research suggests that social intelligence, which encompasses the ability to detect other people’s emotions, doesn’t peak until your 40s.
The study, led by Joshua Hartshorne, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, included a series of experiments in which researchers retrospectively analysed intelligence tests from the 1990s and conducted new, online assessments.
Social intelligence was measured through one of those online assessments. Nearly 12,000 people participated in what researchers call the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test. Participants looked at images of eyes and were asked to select from a list the appropriate emotion the eyes communicated.
The researchers were surprised to find that people in their 40s scored highest on the test — and that social intelligence improved throughout the 20s and 30s. Most other cognitive abilities peaked significantly earlier (as in the case of working memory) or later (as in the case of vocabulary, which doesn’t peak until age 70).
Moreover, the findings suggest that social intelligence is much more stable than other types of intelligence, which start to decline as soon as they peak. Between ages 40 and 60, you’re pretty socially savvy — after that, social intelligence starts to gradually decrease.
Hartshorne can’t say for sure, but he doubts biology can explain why social intelligence follows this trajectory.
Instead, he thinks it has to do with learning. Older people simply have a “broader range of experience” to draw on. So when they see a person with a confusing facial expression, for example, they can draw on their bank of similar expressions to figure out how that person might be feeling. “That seems like a very likely explanation,” Hartshorne said.
Social intelligence could come in handy in personal and professional settings — for example, when you’re having a disagreement. “If you’re trying to get somebody to do something and you’re calibrating your argument based on how they’re responding, it looks like you’d be better able to figure [that] out in your 40s,” Hartshorne said.
Up until now, surprisingly few studies have focused on the way social intelligence evolves over the course of a lifetime. Hartshorne said one reason is that most psychological research focuses on preschoolers and college students (because they congregate in large groups at school) and retirees (because they have a lot of time on their hands).
There’s not a lot of attention paid to people in the middle, largely because they’re hard to get into a lab. But online assessments like the one Hartshorne used make it easy to measure social intelligence in large samples of people in their 30s and 40s.
Overall, the study findings imply that intelligence is more complicated than we might be inclined to believe. While teenagers are in one sense “smarter” than their parents, older folks are by certain standards sharper.
What’s more, the study suggests that intelligence is shaped by our environment — the more we learn, the smarter we get and the better able we are to function in everyday social situations.
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