Orbital Prefrontal Cortex and social skillsHiring a social media manager or a salesperson? Maybe you should have the finalists’ brains scanned in an fMRI.

A larger orbital prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with decision-making and cognitive processing, has been shown to correlate with greater social skills, according to a study by a team of UK researchers. Among the scientists was Robin Dunbar, who pioneered the idea that the average human is limited to a social circle of about 150 people (see Your Brain’s Twitter Limit: 150 Real Friends), a constant now known as the Dunbar number.

The study looked at “intentionality,” summarized in the paper as, “the ability to explain and predict the behaviour of others by attributing to them intentions and mental states.” It’s a measure of social skill, and in this study the researchers gave subjects stories to read and then asked them about the mental states of various characters in the story:

The subject’s own mind state was defined as first order intentionality, and the mind state of each protagonist from the story included in a question added successive levels of intentionality. A 6th order intentionality question thus involved tracking the mind states of five individuals in the story, as well as the subject’s own mind state. [From Neuropsychologia – Orbital prefrontal cortex volume correlates with social cognitive competence

One oversimplified view is that a socially skilled person could correctly assess what Bill was thinking in a situation, but how Sally was interpreting Bill’s actions, etc.

Individual Differences

The study found that the subjects who demonstrated the highest levels of intentionality had larger orbital PFCs, as determined by fMRI scans. While one might assume that the volume of this region is more or less unchanging for an individual, the study didn’t look at whether changes could occur with extensive socialization or specific training. We do know that brain changes can be occur through learning processes, such as long hours of practicing the violin. This study, though, looked mainly at the evolutionary aspect, i.e., growth of this structure in humans appeared to be related to their increased level of social skills compared to other primates.

The orbital PFC isn’t the only brain area associated with social skills. As I described in The Twitter Spot in Your Brain, another study found that larger amygdalas correlated with more friends and more complex social networks.

Nature Tops Nurture?

I don’t really expect hiring managers to start scanning the brains of job candidates, but the study does confirm what we already know from experience: some people have inherently better social skills than others, and that training alone may not be enough to close this gap.

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