Social Skills – Social Perception – Social Perception

by pre., Friday, August 1st, 2008.

We are a deeply, intrinsically, social species. We operate as a group, teach and learn from each other, help and assist each other, exploit and use each other. None of us can even survive without help from others, let alone transcend.

The oil which greases the wheels of cooperation is our ability to understand each other. To see what others think and want and need. Our ‘social perception’ skill is our ability to understand the intentions, emotions, communications, even deceptions and hidden motives of other people. We each use all of our physical perceptive skills to see subtle signals given off by others and combine them into new abstractions in ways which are as indescribable as trying to use words to reproduce a Rorschach inkblot test.

Understanding “Non verbal communication” is, of course, a major component of social perception. Interpreting body language, seeing what a person’s ticks, posture, tells and mannerisms can tell you about a them. But this is far from the whole story because context also matters. A person’s body-language is modulated by their emotional state, situation, stress and pressure, individual differences. Even clothing matters: A uniform affects how you perceive someone and even how they perceive themselves, the authority and social status it can convey.

Perhaps even more obviously, social perception involves listening to and understanding verbal communication. Quite often understanding people well is simply a question of asking them and listening to their reply. Literally taking people at their word (and knowing when not to) is the most basic social perception skill of them all.

Verbal communication contains more than just the text of the message. Just as every tic we unthinkingly act out comes in a context, so every word comes in a context, and with a subtext, and with meaning on more than just the surface level.

Beyond even that the voice used to articulate the words matters: Tone, stress, emphasis, the look and softness in the eye while the words are spoken.

Your amazing brain takes in all this information, processes it and categorises it and seeks patterns in it before signalling it’s conclusions, mostly subconsciously by just changing the way you feel, your mood, to your higher consciousness.

Improving Social Perception

Given how indescribably complex all this neural processing and pattern recognition is, how can you improve your abilities?

The first way, of course, is simply though practice. Though talking to people, trying to guess their meaning, their mood, their motives and desires. Ideally consciously paying attention to the list of signals described above as you do so, and watching for those patterns, remembering that they will differ from one person to the next, from one social group to the next, from one neighbourhood to the next, from one county, country and culture to the next.

Just reading that list above will have already primed you to improve the quality of the benefit from the practice you get from every interaction you have. Upcoming articles will deepen that understanding and simply thinking about these things will improve your understanding more.

This Month’s Guided Meditation

As you listen to our meditation this month, you’ll be asked to use visualisation and association techniques to ensure that you begin to pay more attention to your social exchanges, that you remember which kids of things to look out for during those interactions and it will encourage you to recall past interactions and reinforce the perception patterns which you found successful.

You’ll notice more often that you’re noticing yourself in those situations, and thus they will stick more clearly in your memory. You’ll enjoy those conversations more, and spend time imagining yourself seeking out more social interaction.

You’ll be asked to notice your improvement, suggesting that very improvement as you measure it.

Guided Meditation File 7 – Social Skills – Social Perception

Social Skills – Social Perception – Tells

by pre., Friday, August 8th, 2008.

In poker, a “tell” is detectable change in a player’s behaviour or demeanour that gives clues to that player’s assessment of his hand, but more generally we can say that a “tell” is a change in a persons behaviour that gives clues to their emotional state or awareness.

As mentioned last week, there is no substitute for practice when it comes to spotting tells, and thus being more aware of the emotional state, desires, drives and prejudices of the people you interact with. The clues you’re looking for are simply too complex and even unique to every individual to describe here in a useful way. You will likely never be fully aware of the clues which lead you to an inkling of someone’s emotional sate just as you’re never aware of the signals that you processed to enable to you catch a ball.

Like catching a ball, practice is the only way you’ll really improve your ability to spot tells, to decode and read body language.

However, you won’t learn to catch a ball by watching the grass move under it. You won’t learn to catch a ball by paying attention to the way the wind whips your hair. You really need to be looking at the ball, and just as we can say “Keep your eye on the ball” to help you to learn the art of ball-catching, so we can direct your awareness towards the kinds of things you should be paying attention to while practising your tell-spotting ability in order to make your improvement more efficient, to make that practice more worthwhile.

Reading Tells

The first thing you will need to become aware of, is that everybody is different. Many books on body-language will have chapter after chapter of detailed description on what this particular hand-gesture signifies or what some other sweep of the leg will mean but this is clearly nonsense. Every person has a different brain, a different mix of cultures, differing levels of control over their body, different gait and posture and, in short, base-line activity. Some will fidget more, some less. Some blink faster, some slower. Each will have a different pitched voice. Even the same person in two different situations will behave differently. You don’t have the same tells in front of your boss as you do in front of your lover. You don’t have the same ticks in a life-threatening situation as you do in relaxed comfort.

The key to learning to understand body-language and tells better is to watch for changes in behaviour rather than some particular semaphore-like signal. You’re not looking for whether or not someone blinks, you’re looking for a change in the rate of their blinking. Touching the nose may just mean they have an itchy nose, but suddenly changing to touch the eye may have more significance.


You know how to identify an angry person by a photograph of their face. But people can fake an angry expression as easily as they can fake a smile for a photographer. Looking at the expression on a person’s face is certainly useful, but it’s also more or less under their conscious control.

Sometimes, however, a microexpression may cross a person’s face for a tiny instant before they regain full conscious control of their facial muscles.

It takes a lot of training, and often video-processing, to notice these expressions. They may be gone in as little as a twenty-fifth of a second. Less than a single frame of cinema. Microexpressions are so fleeting that you will certainly miss most of them consciously.

However, we’re not trying to learn to notice these things consciously. We’re trying to learn how to feel the truth of the signals we’re given. We’re not trying to learn to do ballistic motion equations, we’re trying to learn to catch a ball.

So pay attention to fleeting glimpses of expression of people’s faces, but don’t expect to consciously read them.


Looking into someone’s eyes gives you more information that simply which direction they’re looking, if their eyes are open or closed, though these pieces of data are incredibly important. Eye contact also helps you to become aware of tiny movements of the muscles around the eyes, the focus of their attention, the rate of succade movements, the dilation of the pupil, the blinking rate, the shine which is proportional to the wetness, the shape, even where things are laid out in their imagination. All these things and many nameless combinations of them combine to reflect someone’s state of mind.

Some are under conscious control and may thus be deliberate mis-information. Remember that a change in the pattern is more likely significant than any given action.

NLP practitioners may tell you that looking upwards indicates visual thinking, that briefly glancing downwards indicates auditory thinking or emotional states of mind. This may even be occasionally true, but it’s unlikely that these kinds of generalisations apply to everyone, in every circumstance. You need to pay attention to these kinds of signals, but remember that they do not necessarily mean what others will tell you they mean. You need to simply learn to assimilate the information and let it inform your pattern-matching memory, just as you just need to watch enough balls to learn to catch them.


Particular gesticulations can be very significant when trying to read body language. If a person is talking about a problem and pointing at something, they may be pointing at the problem. Or a symbol of the problem. Or the location of the problem in their own imagination. You should watch where a person is pointing, what they are miming, look for symbolic meaning in their gesture.

If they are touching you, or indeed something or someone else, notice where and how the touch happens, how intentional it seems.

As relevent as, maybe even more relevent than, that though is the amount of gesticulation a person is doing. How animated they are will often correlate to how strongly they are feeling the emotional state induced by the things they are taking about.


Pay particular attention, sometimes, to the way a person’s feet are moving. The rate they are tapping, or even if they’re pointed open or closed. Often, particularly if trying to hide something, a person will have great control over the more obvious sub-linguistic signals but forget entirely that their feet will be giving the game away.


Shoulders can give away more than a shrug of indifference or uncertainty. They can be a part of a signal which indicates hierarchy, or confidence, or discomfort at a topic. Watch how high a person’s shoulders are carried if they’re hunched or spread, these may all be keys to help learn a person’s state of mind.


When people are in agreement, they often mirror each other’s actions. The closer two people get, the closer their movements become. Pay attention to who is copying who in a conversation, who drinks at the same time, who’s pointing and gesticulating in the same direction as each other, who’s mimicking each other’s mimes. The more closely two people mirror, the more likely they are to be thinking in step, to be strongly empathising with each other.


It’s easy to concentrate too hard on the words that someone is saying, but if you’re to understand the full set of signals you’re receiving you have to ‘keep your eye’ on more than just the semantics. Changes in pitch, speed, tone and timbre can all modify the meaning of words or give away unintended subtleties. How colourful the language or embellished the story gives clues to state of mind. Remember to spend some time paying attention to all these things so that you can learn to gather the whole range of information available to you.

A New Sense

When you are well practised, on your way to transcending, you will stop paying attention directly to these signals, just as you stop paying attention to the individual lines, or letters, or punctuation, when you’re reading a sentence. It’s not that you will look at all the tells we’re describing, think about them and come to a conclusion. Just as you “see” colour without knowing the wavelength of the light hitting your retina, or the exact proportion with which it excites the various colour receptors there, you’ll learn to ‘see’ someone’s intention without knowing exactly why you know it. Consciously knowing if a person’s statement is a lie or an honest expression of their emotional state does not require knowing why you know. It doesn’t mean you’re aware of which combination of signals lead you to that belief. It certainly doesn’t require being able to explain it in words.

You’re not trying to learn to concentrate on these things, you’re concentrating on them so that you can later let the sub-conscious take over, just as we had to pay attention to learn to drive but can now turn the radio and chat to a friend and eat crisps at the same time.

You’ll likely also develop a sense of how trustworthy your sense is in any given case. Bare in mind that this too can be a false signal, you can be more convinced of a lie than of the truth sometimes. Always doubt yourself, always continue to collect evidence, to refine your sense.

Social Skills – Social Perception – Hierarchy

by pre., Friday, August 15th, 2008.

Most social animal species organise themselves into dominance hierarchies. The Alpha Chimp gets the most respect, the king of the seals gets a harem, the top dog is leader of the pack and even chickens spontaneously order themselves into a pecking order.

Human beings, of course, are more complicated than chickens and our social structures are more convoluted and tied in knots than even those of dolphins and chimps. Human beings don’t have a simple pecking order, we have a multi-dimensional system of different interconnected hierarchies. The boss at work may not be the boss of his own family, the father-figure of a family may be the butt of the jokes in his English class, the towering matriarch can still be bottom of the list at her bridge club. Not only does every individual carry their own subjective hierarchy, but we each carry multiple hierarchies for different contexts, different topics, different scenes.

Calculating Hierarchies

Now when a group of monkeys are first thrown together, they do not need to fight it out in every combination possible to each know the ranks of themselves and others within the dominance hierarchy. Monkey A doesn’t have to fight each of Monkeys B through Z in order to figure out his position. He can assume that the dominance is more or less transative, that if some monkey who beat him in a fight loses to another monkey then that money would probably beat him in a fight too.

More than this, as each individual in the group begins to figure out their own position it effects their behaviour. Displays and signalling can avoid the need for a test-fight between individuals if one has already worked out he’s high and the other low.

A well trained zoologist can tell just by looking as two animals interact which of them is higher in the social hierarchy than the other. No doubt the animals can tell even more easily. Not just primates, not just mammals, every animal down to a fish can interpret the range of signals they see and combine the information to get a good idea of their relative positions in the social hierarchy in just a few moments.

Of course, the fish likely aren’t conscious of it in the way that the zoologist is. But then, people do the same thing, and they mostly aren’t conscious of it either. People can tell who’s important by who acts important but they’re not in general conscious of what behaviours they’re interpreting to come to that conclusion in the way a trained zoologist is when examining fish. They just get a sense of importance from this person. A feeling that they should defer or overrule.

All the tells we have discussed, people’s posture, clothing, manner, the way they hold eye contact and the firmness of their grip are the signals that we use to gain that sense off importance. These signals are produced and perceived almost entirely subconsciously. Reading that behaviour, knowing where someone believes themselves to be from their unconscious signalling, is the Social Perception skill of Hierarchy Determination. Becoming more conscious of these signals, and how you subconsciously interpret them, will improve your skill and thus make your ability to spot false signals (like when an actor puts on a white coat to sell you washing powder), the utility of which is obvious.

Improving Social Hierarchy Determination

As you listen to this month’s guided meditation file pick a situation in which you judged someone’s status, decided they were more or less important than either you or someone else. Try to pay particular attention to how you decided, what lead your subconscious to make you feel that way.

Social Skills – Social Perception – Network Effects

by pre., Friday, August 22nd, 2008.

Imagine for a moment that you’re standing talking to a friend, with your back to the door. The door opens and you see your friend look up at the door and her expression changes. As you see the smile on her face you know instantly that whoever has just walked in behind you is friend, not foe. You know more than this really, the complex set of signals your friend is giving both to you and to the new arrival behind you reflect both your friend’s relationship with the person in the doorway and your relationship with each of those people. If you know the person to your rear well, you can quite probably guess who they are just from your friend’s reaction, before she says a word.

This is the network effect in social perception. Reading someone reading someone, reading the second (even third, forth etc.) order signals reflected from one person in your community to another. Your subconscious is processing these kinds of signals and influencing your mood all the time, at least all the time you’re not alone.

Last week we mentioned that hens can establish a “pecking order” without each having to interact with every other member of the brood. The network effects of social perception play a great part in how this is achieved. Charlie the Chicken can tell by watching Carl the chicken when he’s around Conan the chicken that Carl thinks Conan is higher in the chain, thus Charlie only has to beat Conan (or lose to Carl) in order to know the positions of all three. Charlie doesn’t have to actually see a fight between Conan and Carl to know it’s happened, to read the result from their behaviour towards each other.

The network effects of social perception play an even more complicated role in human hierarchy than they do in chicken consecution. Chickens just need to establish their linear pecking-order while you have to establish your position in a multi-dimensional array of differing orthogonal social scales. So you do this all the time, processing people’s opinions of each other, collating them, taking them into account.

When people talk about the ‘vibe’ at a gathering, a party perhaps, a conference or a meeting, they’re mostly talking about these network effects. About how the mood of each person spreads to those they interact with, how their impression of the mood of the people around them spreads similarly. This constant exchange of information, of mood and impression, is mostly subconscious, so people can perhaps be forgiven for thinking the feelings it pushes up into their consciousness are “vibrations in the astral plane” (which is what ‘vibe’ means), but of course there is no astral plane to vibrate. There’s just people, interacting.

Similarly, these network effects lead to what some call the “contact high“. If everyone around you is happy and friendly towards each other you will in turn subconsciously trust their judgement and assume everything is happy and friendly. Incidentally, you will also be entirely right, they ARE all friendly and happy — even if it’s just because they’re reading the same thing from everyone else.

Your Aim

Which brings us nicely to the usefulness of our social perception of network effects. Clearly it’s useful to pay attention to these things, and thus to learn to perform them better. But it’s also useful to know where this information comes from. If you understand it’s a reflection of the opinion of the people around you then you will treat it with a more appropriate level of scepticism and distrust than if you think it’s information coming direct from the Elder Gods in the Astral Plane. You may even see ways to subtlety influence key people and have the effects of that influence cascade around the network, multiplying as they go. We’ll expand on that in our second lap around the spiral.

In the mean time, as you listen to the “Social Perception” track, try to concentrate on occasions when you noticed the network effect taking place. Likely when you were talking to someone about a third party, either present or not. Try to recall how that person’s body-language was effected by their opinions of that third person. Try to guess the opinions based on those tells.

Guided Meditation File 7 – Social Skills – Social Perception
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