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Can Friendly Social Talk Improve Cognitive Functions?

How friendly conversation can improve your cognitive performance.

Human beings are social animals . We spend most of our lives with others in groups. And our intelligence sets us apart from others animal species. Leaders in organizations focus a great deal on factors that will improve productivity and its impact on the bottom line, but usually that takes the form of looking at marketing, sales, financial structures and organizational issues. It rarely takes the form of looking at social interaction among people in the organization.

Talking with people in a friendly manner can make it easier to solve problems, but conversations that are competitive in nature, rather than collaborative or cooperative, have no cognitive benefits, according to a new study by scientists at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.
According to Oscar Ybara, the lead researcher in the study, which will be published in the forthcoming per-reviewed journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, "simply talking to people the way you do when you're making friends, can provide mental benefits." In this study and in previous studies, Ybara contends that positive social interaction boosts the brain's executive function and subsequent performance on a variety of cognitive tasks.The researchers also found that just spending 10 minutes talking to another person improved their memory and performance on cognitive tests.

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In contrast, when participants in the study engaged in conversation that had a competitive edge, their performance on cognitive tasks showed no improvement. Ybara argues that "performance boosts come about because social interactions induce people to try to take other people's perspectives on things.." Ybara contends that his research clearly highlights the connection between social intelligence and general intelligence and the overlap between social-cognitive and executive brain functions.

The implication of this research is that social isolation may have a negative effect on intellectual abilities, performance and emotional well-being. And as sociologist, Robert Putnam described in his book, Bowling Alone, our society has increasing levels of social isolation, the effects could be far reaching.

Leaders in organizations will be wise to pay attention to the importance of positive social interaction in the workplace as a contributing factor to productivity and workplace wellness.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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