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Social skills

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is a game where you connect actor Kevin Bacon to another actor in as few links as possible. For example, Tom Cruise has a Bacon number of 1 because they worked together in the movie A Few Good Men. Jessica Alba has a Bacon number of 2 because she starred in P.U.N.K.S. with John Nielsen, and John was in Rails & Ties with Kevin. Across the movie universe, the average Bacon number is about 3, which means that most actors can be linked to Kevin in three steps or less. Consult the Oracle of Bacon website (http://oracleofbacon.org/), and find the Bacon number for your favorite star.

Six Degrees
Outside of movies, the same small world phenomenon applies to you and me. Have you ever unexpectedly encountered someone from your past in a distant country? At a wedding in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, I was surprised to discover that one of the bridesmaids used to sit in front of me in high school math class…in Toronto, Canada. Researchers from Columbia University asked 60,000 e-mail users to reach one of 18 target persons in 13 countries by forwarding messages to friends and acquaintances1. Results showed that most searches reached their target in 5–7 steps.

Six degrees is all that separates you from almost anyone in the world. By expanding your network, you lower your degrees of separation, and increase the number of people who can help you achieve success. The purpose of this article is to improve your social skills in a small world that’s getting smaller. One day, maybe you’ll only be a phone call away from Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates.

Six degrees of separation…means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those few.
-Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point

Let’s Work Together
Cooperation helps you accomplish more because you don’t have to do everything yourself. In academia, scientists who collaborate more also publish more papers2. Collaboration lets scientists divide up the work, and build on each other’s expertise. The disadvantage of cooperation is the risk of being exploited by freeloaders. How can you protect yourself?

Game Theory is a branch of mathematics that studies situations where players choose to cooperate or take advantage of each other. A classic game is Prisoner’s Dilemma, which goes like this3:

Two suspects, Tom and Charlie, are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, so they separate the prisoners and offer each man the same deal: if one testifies, and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free, and the silent prisoner receives a 10-year sentence. If they both betray each other, they both get 5-year sentences. But if both remain silent, they only get 6-month sentences because there won’t be enough evidence for a major charge. Since the men are separated, neither knows for sure what the other will do.

What’s the best move? According to the math, the best strategy is betrayal if the game is played once. But if the game is played many times in a row, the best strategy is known as “Tit for Tat4.” You start by cooperating, and then copy your partner’s previous move. If your partner betrayed you in the last game, you betray him in the next game. Depending on the situation, a slightly better strategy is “Tit for Tat with Forgiveness,” where you occasionally forgive your partner and cooperate, even if he betrayed you in the last game. In the real world, “Tit for Tat” is a useful strategy for avoiding freeloaders. Start by cooperating, but end the relationship if someone takes advantage of you.

In every relationship you get into—every business, social, or personal transaction—make sure that the other person gets as much benefit from it as you do.
-Michael Masterson

Liar. Cheater. Traitor. These are fighting words. It’s human nature to get angry when you’re betrayed. The principles of fairness and justice have been hardwired into our brains during the evolution of social behavior. Even monkeys will object to unfair treatment. Researchers from Yerkes National Primate Research Center rewarded brown capuchin monkeys with cucumber treats if they handed a token back to the experimenter5. Monkeys became angry when they saw another monkey receive a better reward for the same effort. They became even angrier when another monkey was rewarded for doing nothing. Monkeys who felt cheated actually rejected the cucumber rewards. They preferred to have nothing rather than participate in an unfair game.

In humans, researchers have used the Ultimatum Game to investigate how people react to unfairness6. The game goes like this:
  • You and a partner are given $10 to split between you.
  • One of you is randomly chosen to propose a split. For example, you might offer a split of $3 to your partner and $7 to you.
  • The other person decides whether or not to accept the split.
  • If the split is rejected, neither of you gets any money.
Researchers have found that the average offer is $4.37, and about 8 percent of offers are rejected. Similar to monkeys, some people would rather turn down free money than accept an unfair offer. In a variation of the Ultimatum Game, partners are tested with general knowledge questions, and the winner is allowed to choose the split of $10. In this scenario, the average offer is $3.62. None of the offers are rejected, even when the splits are highly uneven. People believe that the winner has earned the right to keep most of the money.

In the long run, cheaters never prosper. It pays to treat people fairly. Warren Buffett says, “Act like what you are going to do is going to end up on the front page of The Washington Post because by the time a man is 60, he has the reputation he deserves.”

The measure of a man’s real character is what he would do if he knew he never would be found out.
-Thomas Babington Macaulay

It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but only a few minutes to ruin it. This is especially true in the diamond business, where thousands of dollars of merchandise may be exchanged on a handshake. There’s a lot of trust involved because it’s tempting to hop on a plane and disappear with a fortune. Although the legal system provides protections such as liens and collateral, many diamond merchants rely instead on a private system of trust and reputation because it’s less costly and more reliable than public courts.

The advantages of the private system may explain why ultra-Orthodox Jews dominate the diamond industry in New York, Antwerp, and Israel7. The Jewish community has an arbitration system that mediates disputes, and widely publicizes broken promises. Dishonest merchants are quickly identified and ostracized. Merchants are also motivated to maintain their reputations and relationships so that their children can inherit the family business.

Some scientists believe that religion evolved to encourage collaboration and fair exchange8. For most of human history, there were no courts or police to enforce contracts or agreements. It would have been tempting to lie, cheat, and steal. But you were less likely to be exploited if your customers, suppliers, and partners belonged to a religion that advocated ethical behavior. Unscrupulous people may have pretended to be religious to take advantage of believers. To discourage these fakers, religions developed costly proofs of faith, such as restrictive rules, time-consuming rituals, and expensive tithing.

The next time you’re in New York, drop by Manhattan’s 47th street and the New York Diamond Dealers Club. The shops and trading halls are bustling with ultra-Orthodox Jews speaking Yiddish, and wearing their distinctive black suits and black hats. It’s a vivid example of how religion benefits business.

Trust, but verify.
-Ronald Reagan

Personality Type
It’s easier to relate to people when you understand their personality—the patterns they use to interact with the world around them. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is one of the most popular personality assessment systems. Every year, 2.5 million Americans take the MBTI test, and 89 companies in the Fortune 100 use it for hiring and training their employees9. According to the MBTI, everyone’s personality may be classified by four criteria: Extraversion/Introversion, Sensing/Intuitive, Thinking/Feeling, and Judging/Perceiving10:
  • Extraversion/Introversion refers to the source of your energy, and how you express it to the world. Extroverts are energized by things in the external world, whereas introverts draw strength from within.
  • Sensing/Intuitive is how you perceive information. Sensors prefer to receive information from the external world, whereas intuitives prefer information from the internal world of the mind.
  • Thinking/Feeling is how you process information and form judgments. Thinkers make decisions based on logic and reason. Feelers make decisions based on emotion.
  • Judging/Perceiving is how you implement the information you’ve processed. Judgers are organized and decisive. Perceivers prefer to improvise. They enjoy searching for options and alternatives.
By combining the four criteria, you end up with 16 possible personality types. For example, the INFJ type is someone who is (I)ntroverted, I(N)tuitive, (F)eeling, and (J)udging. The ESTP type is (E)xtraverted, (S)ensing, (T)hinking, and (P)erceiving. To get a quick idea of your personality type, read through the following table, and find the statements which describe you best.

Are energized around other people Are energized by spending time alone
Like being the center of attention Avoid being the center of attention
Act, then think Think, then act
Think out loud Think inside their heads
Share personal information freely Are more private
Talk more than listen Listen more than talk

Are oriented to the present Are oriented toward the future
Value realism and common sense Value imagination and innovation
Like to use and improve on established skills Get bored easily after mastering new skills
Tend to be specific and literal Tend to use metaphors and analogies
Prefer step-by-step information Prefer big-picture information

Value logic, justice, and fairness Value empathy and harmony
May be seen as heartless, insensitive, and uncaring May be seen as overemotional, illogical, and weak
Consider it more important to be truthful than sensitive Consider it important to be sensitive as well as truthful
Believe feelings are valid only if they are logical Believe any feeling is valid, whether it makes sense or not
Naturally see flaws and tend to be critical Naturally like to please others
Are motivated by a desire for achievement
Are motivated by a desire to be appreciated

Work first, play later Play now, work later
Enjoy finishing projects Enjoy starting projects
Take deadlines seriously See deadlines as flexible
Set goals and achieve them on time Change goals as they get new information
See time as limited See time as a renewable resource
Are happiest after decisions have been made Are happiest leaving their options open

The table below shows the proportion of personality traits in the general population11. Overall, there are slightly more introverts than extroverts, and more people are sensing rather than intuitive. Women are more emotional, and men are more logical. Also, judgers are more common than perceivers.

Extrovert (E) 45% 47% 46%
Introvert (I)
55% 53% 54%
Sensing (S) 64% 71% 68%
Intuitive (N) 36% 29% 32%
Thinking (T) 69% 39% 53%
Feeling (F) 31% 61% 47%
Judging (J) 55% 61% 58%
Perceptive (P) 45% 39% 42%

Understanding Others
In humans and other social animals such as dolphins, elephants, and chimpanzees, special brain cells called “mirror neurons” allow us to empathize with others12. These neurons let you imagine what it would be like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. Use your empathy skills to figure out the personality types of your friends, family, and coworkers. See if you can associate each of the 16 types with people you know.

By recognizing people’s types, you can calibrate your behavior and improve your relationships. For example, judgers expect you to be on time for appointments. If you’re 5 minutes late, they’re steaming inside, no matter what they say to your face. Similarly, feelers respond better to emotional appeals than logical arguments.

At the Kellogg School of Management, Professor Adam Galinsky investigated the influence of empathy and perspective-taking on successful negotiation13. Perspective-taking is considering the world from someone else’s viewpoint. Empathy is the ability to connect with them emotionally.
In Galinsky’s experiment, pairs of MBA students were randomly divided into three groups: (1) perspective-takers, (2) empathizers, and (3) a control group. One student in each pair played the role of a businessperson selling a gas station. The other student played the role of a buyer. The negotiations were complicated by four factors that forced students to negotiate a creative deal:
  1. The seller planned to go on a sailing trip with the proceeds from the sale.
  2. The seller wanted to return to work after the trip.
  3. The buyer needed to hire managers to run the gas station.
  4. The seller’s minimum price was set higher than the maximum the buyer was allowed to pay.
In the perspective-taking group, buyers tried to understand the seller’s thought process and motives for selling. In the empathy group, buyers tried to understand the seller’s feelings and emotions. In the control group, buyers were told simply to concentrate on their role. Results showed that perspective-taking buyers were more likely to strike a deal (76 percent) than the empathizers (54 percent), followed by the control group (39 percent). “You want to understand what the other side’s interests are, but you do not want to sacrifice your own interests,” said Galinsky. “A large amount of empathy can actually impair the ability of people to reach a creative deal14.”

An understanding of people’s hidden motives is the single greatest piece of knowledge you can have in acquiring power.
-Robert Greene

Know Thy Neighbor
  1. Read more about the 16 personality types at http://www.personalitypage.com/high-level.html
  2. Make a list of the most important people in your life.
  3. Figure out their personality types.
  4. Calibrate your behavior to their personality types.

Understand Yourself
In addition to improving your relationships with others, the MBTI can help you understand yourself. For example, introverts should spend quiet time alone after socializing with friends. If you’re an intuitive, big-picture diagrams will help you learn new concepts faster. When you’re aware of your natural personality preferences, you make choices that are more in tune with who you are.

Know Thyself
  1. Take this free Myers-Briggs test online: http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/JTypes1.htm
  2. Print out the interpretation of your personality type, and post it above your desk.
  3. Adjust your life to be more in tune with your personality type.

Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is enlightenment.
-Lao Tzu

Reading People
The throbbing of the pulse in a man’s neck is a sign that he’s bluffing. It’s a physiological response to the fear of loss. Noticing “tells” like this has helped Doyle “Big Papa” Brunson win 10 World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets. At 75, Doyle is the godfather of poker. He routinely dominates players half his age. Above all, Doyle believes that poker is a game of people15. The greatest players get inside their opponents’ heads, and figure out their moods, feelings, and psychological frame of mind. They also pay close attention to body language and facial twitches, because almost all players have tells, giveaway moves that reveal their hand.

Physiognomy is the science of face reading. Facial expressions are a rich source of tells16. Eyes are especially revealing. When people are stressed, their eyes instinctively float up and show the whites below their irises. Even from a distance, you can easily see the whites of someone’s eyes. Around the eye, the shape of the lower eyelid is an indicator of responsiveness. Flat bottom lids indicate suspicion or resistance, while round or curved lids signal emotional acceptance.

Examine the sides of the eye to tell if someone is smiling sincerely17. In a real smile, the orbicularis oculi muscle crinkles the sides of the eye in a pattern known as a “Duchenne smile.” It is a reliable indicator of a genuine smile because the muscle is not under conscious control. Other telltale facial signs include flaring nostrils and clenched jaw muscles when people are angry.

Imagine if you could read people’s minds. You would know if they were lying or telling the truth. You would know exactly what they wanted. Until scientists invent a telepathic implant, practice reading body language and facial expressions. When you combine these skills with personality typing, you’ll be surprised by how predictable people are.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
-Sun Tzu

Nonverbal Body Language
  1. Watch a movie with the sound turned off.
  2. Observe the actors’ faces, gestures, and body language.
  3. What are they thinking and feeling?

No mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.
-Sigmund Freud

Actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan was a master storyteller. In his head, he carried around a library of jokes, one-liners, and anecdotes that he could recall to fit any situation18. Reagan knew that people love a good story. Stories capture your imagination in a way that goes beyond facts and figures. Whether you’re making a speech, or chatting with friends, tell a story to engage your audience, and establish yourself as someone worth knowing.

There are five steps in telling a good story19:
  1. Establish the setting by describing the time, place, characters, and context.
  2. Build the plot so that listeners sense the tension of the situation.
  3. Reveal the key event that resolves the crisis.
  4. Describe the lesson learned.
  5. Explain how the characters changed.
The best stories are short and sweet. Use conversational language, and personalize your story with familiar names and places. Finally, watch your audience’s body language, and adjust the story if they’re bored or confused.

Public Speaking
Toastmasters is a nonprofit organization with 220,000 members in 11,300 clubs around the world. Most clubs meet once a week for a few hours.

Develop your story-telling and public-speaking skills by visiting www.toastmasters.org and joining the club nearest you.

Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his office, whoever can command this power is still formidable.
-Winston Churchill

Human Voice
In The Cluetrain Manifesto, David Weinberger talks about how consumers are bypassing canned corporate-speak in favor of “human to human” conversations on the Internet. In an allusion to Martin Luther, the 16th-century monk and father of the Protestant Reformation, Weinberger proposes 95 theses for authentic communication. Here are four of my favorites:

3.  Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.

4.  Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.

14. Corporations do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, companies sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman.

33. Learning to speak with a human voice is not a parlor trick. It can’t be “picked up” at some fancy conference.

Whether you’re telling a story, writing a book, or giving a presentation, people respond better if you speak in a human voice. It’s the way you speak when you’re chatting with an old friend. There’s no jargon or fancy words. It sounds simple, but it takes a lot of practice. Internet entrepreneur Paul Graham says, “The easy, conversational tone of good writing comes only on the eighth rewrite.”

Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.
-William Butler Yeats

Words That Work
Over 900,000 copies of the following book have been sold. Read it and learn how to write so that people enjoy what you’ve written.

William Zinsser. (1998). On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 6th edition. HarperCollins.

What you say is often less important than how you say it. In a study from Stanford University, doctors were asked whether they would prefer radiation or surgery if they had cancer20. One group was told that 10 out of 100 patients die from surgery. A second group was told that 90 out of 100 patients survive surgery. Even though both statements mean the same thing, 50 percent of the first group said they would prefer radiation over surgery, compared to 16 percent of the second group. The first statement made doctors think about the risks of surgery, while the second made them think about the benefits.

In psychology, “framing” refers to how the choice of language can define a debate. Pollster Frank Luntz is infamous for reframing political issues to favor conservative viewpoints21. Instead of “drilling for oil,” Luntz advises Republicans to say “exploring for energy.” Similarly, “international trade” and “free market economy” sound friendlier than “foreign trade” and “globalization.” Sometimes, convincing your audience is simply a matter of finding the right frame.
Example of Framing
Both circles in the middle are the same size.

Influence and Persuasion
For 3 years, psychologist Robert Cialdini went undercover at used car dealerships, fundraising organizations, and telemarketing firms. His mission was discovering the secrets of persuasion. Based on his insider experiences, he identified six weapons of influence:
  1. Reciprocity. People like to return favors. If you give someone a small gift, they will be more likely to grant you a big favor.
  2. Commitment and Consistency. If people commit verbally or in writing, they are more likely to honor their commitment. For example, you are more likely to stick to a diet if you tell your friends and family.
  3. Social Proof. People do things they see other people doing. Beautiful women are attracted to men who are surrounded by other beautiful women.
  4. Authority. People want to obey authority figures, even if they’re asked to do things they wouldn’t normally do. For example, soldiers may follow orders that contradict their values.
  5. Liking. People do things if they like you. That’s why Avon ladies find it easier to sell to their friends.
  6. Scarcity. There is more demand for things that are rare. For example, “Limited Time Offers” increase sales.
In addition to Cialdini’s six weapons of influence, here are three more techniques to get people to do what you want:
  1. Giving reasons
  2. Touching
  3. Using names

Giving Reasons
When you give a reason for your request, people are more likely to agree. In a study from Harvard University, experimenters tried to cut to the front of the line for a photocopier22. They used one of three statements:
  1. Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?
  2. Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?
  3. Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?
The experimenters succeeded 60 percent of the time with the first statement, 94 percent with the second statement, and 93 percent with the third statement (even though the reason didn’t make any sense).

In a follow-up study, experimenters used the same statements to make 20 photocopies instead of just five. This time, the first statement succeeded 42 percent of the time, followed by 24 percent for the second and third statements. When the favor is bigger, people think more carefully about the reason. Still, it’s worth asking because you don’t get what you don’t ask for.

Touching someone’s arm for 1–2 seconds might seem trivial, but this small action has big effects on behavior23. Salespeople get more sales, and waitresses get more tips. When teachers reach out and touch small children, there is a 60 percent decrease in disruptive behavior such as hitting classmates and getting up without permission. Touching the upper arm works best (touching the shoulder or hand doesn’t work as well).

In a study from Southern Methodist University, students were asked for donations to a local charity24. When the teacher remembered their names, students gave money 90 percent of the time. It was only 50 percent when the teacher forgot their names. In medical school, I had a histology teacher who made a point of remembering every student’s name. It’s no coincidence that he was the most popular teacher in the faculty. Motivational author Dale Carnegie once said, “Remember that a person’s name, is to that person, the sweetest sound in any language.”

Meeting New People
  1. At your next networking event, introduce yourself to five new people.
  2. Address them by name at least three times in your conversation. Touch their upper arm at least twice.
  3. Give them your business card, and see how many follow up with you.
  4. Repeat this exercise at another networking event. But this time, don’t use people’s names, and don’t touch them.
  5. Compare how many people follow up with you.


  1. Dodds PS et al. (2003). An experimental study of search in global social networks. Science. 301: 827–829.
  2. Bozeman B, Lee S. (2003). The impact of research collaboration on scientific productivity. Paper prepared for presentation at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Denver, Colorado February, 2003.
  3. Wikipedia. Prisoner’s dilemma. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma
  4. Nowak MA, Sigmund K. (1994). The alternating Prisoner’s Dilemma. J Theor Biol. 168:219–226.
  5. Brosnan SF, de Waal FBM. (2003). Monkeys reject unequal pay. Nature. 245:297–299.
  6. Smith VL. (2003). Constructivist and ecological rationality in economics. American Economic Review. 93(3):465–508.
  7. Richman BD. (2006). How community institutions create economic advantage: Jewish diamond merchants in New York. Law and Social Inquiry. 31(2):383–420.
  8. Bulbulia J. (2004). The cognitive and evolutionary psychology of religion. Biology and Philosophy. 19:655–686.
  9. Gladwell M. (2004). Personality plus: employers love personality tests. But what do they really reveal? New Yorker. September 20, 2004.
  10. Tieger PD, Barron-Tieger B. (2001). Do what you are: discover the perfect career for you through the secrets of personality type. 3rd edition. Little, Brown and Company.
  11. Dollar CS, Schroeder DJ. (2004). A longitudinal study of Meyers-Briggs personality types in air traffic controllers. Federal Aviation Administration. Report No. DOT/FAA/AM-04/21.
  12. Gallese V, Keysers C, Rizzolatti G. (2004). A unifying view of the basis of social cognition. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences. 8(9):396–403.
  13. Galinksy A et al. (2008). Why it pays to get inside the head of your opponent: the differential effects of perspective taking and empathy in negotiations. Psychological Science. 19(4):378–384.
  14. Economist. (2008). Inside a deal. May 1, 2008.
  15. Brunson D. (2002). Doyle Brunson’s Super System: a course in power poker. 3rd edition. Cardoza Publishing.
  16. Fulfer M. (2001). Nonverbal communication: how to read what’s plain as the nose…or eyelid… or chin… on their faces. Journal of Organizational Excellence. 20(2):19–27.
  17. Ekman P, Davidson RJ, Friesen WV. (1990). The Duchenne Smile: emotional expression and brain physiology II. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 58(2):342–353.
  18. Greenspan A. (2007). The age of turbulence: adventures in a new world. Penguin Press. p. 88.
  19. James CH, Minnis WC. (2004). Organizational storytelling: it makes sense. Business Horizons. 47(4):23–32.
  20. McNeil BJ et al. (1982). On the elicitation of preferences for alternative therapies. New Eng J Med. 306:1259–1262.
  21. Bai M. (2005). The framing wars. New York Times. July 17, 2005.
  22. Langer E, Blank A, Chanowitz B. (1978). The mindlessness of ostensibly thoughtful action: the role of “placebic” information in interpersonal interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 36(6):635–642.
  23. Gueguen N. (2004). Nonverbal encouragement of participation in a course: the effect of touching. Social Psychology of Education. 7:89–98.
  24. Howard DJ, Gengler C, Jain A. (1995). What’s in a name? A complimentary means of persuasion. Journal of Consumer Research. 22(2):200–211.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D.
Buy the book at www.MasterLifeFaster.com