February 5, 2019

Food for Thought

According to some studies I’ve read, most people have a hard time following the conversation when the party is larger than 4. They can determine this number because, in a large group, people naturally break up into smaller groups to converse, and the average number of these subgroups is 4. And some researchers have theorized that how many people you can have a conversation with corresponds to what we generally call “social skills.” That sounds right to me.

But here is a caveat. Performing in front of an audience is not a conversation. To carry a conversation effectively, you need to keep track of the state of each person’s mind like a poker player would do. You need to have some idea of what each person is thinking and feeling; only then would you be able to respond appropriately. In a party of 4, you need to keep track of 3 people’s minds. But it gets more complex. You not only have to keep track of what each person is thinking/feeling about you but also about the other two people. So, that’s 3 x 3 = 9 states to keep track of. You add one more, you have 4 x 4 = 16 states.

So, if you want to test how great someone’s social skills are, you can abruptly stop the conversation and ask every member to describe all these states of minds. For instance, in a group of John, Mary, Jack, and Jane, we first pull John aside and privately ask what he thinks Mary is feeling about John, Jack, and Jane. Then, what Jack is thinking about John, Mary, and Jane. And so on... We do this for all of the members. I would imagine that most people would be able to provide some answer to each question. Accuracy isn’t so important. What we want to determine is whether each person was tracking these states or not.

If you have a party of 6 (5 x 5 = 25 states), I’m pretty sure that you would have to be a social genius to have answers for all 25 states. For many of the states, your answer would be something like, “What Zoe must be thinking about Zack now? Umm... I don’t know.” I can think of a few people (with ADHD) who might be able to pull this off.

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