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Social Competence and Not Losing One’s Cool

December 14, 2013

By Michael D. Robinson (North Dakota State University), Adam K. Fetterman (Knowledge Media Research Center in Tübingen, Germany), Kay Hopkins (North Dakota State University), Sukumarakurup  Krishnakumar (North Dakota State University)

A co-worker repeatedly ignores your good ideas. How effective might it be to yell at him?

Other people can do things that are rude and insulting. It is human nature to experience anger under such circumstances and anger wants us to act assertively, sometimes to the point of aggression. But are these sorts of behaviors effective? It might “depend on the situation” to some extent but in many situations the answer is probably “no”. For example, yelling at the co-worker might convince the co-worker that you are a hot-head who is unlikely to have very good ideas!

Being successful in life is likely to require some social competence – knowledge about effective and ineffective ways of dealing with the situations that confront us. Thorndike (1920) originally proposed something like social competence and he said that it might often be more important than IQ in determining our life courses. Robinson, Fetterman, Hopkins, and Krishnakumar (2013) recently proposed a way to measure this ability or skill. People read about 10 situations and rate the effectiveness of different ways of responding to them. These ratings are compared to what an expert sample thinks and then each person gets a social competence score based on his/her agreement with experts. Perhaps because no one ever gave us the “rule book” for life, there are some people who receive pretty low scores. They are socially incompetent by this measure. Other people, though, get very high scores and could be labeled socially competent.

How might socially incompetent people differ from those who are socially competent? One answer is that socially incompetent people might be more prone to acting aggressively when they feel irritated – something called “reactive aggression”. Why so? According to Strack and Deutsch (2004), people can act on impulse or they can act more thoughtfully. However, acting thoughtfully requires social knowledge and socially incompetent people lack this knowledge. As a result, they should be less capable of over-riding their tendencies toward reactive aggression when acting aggressively would not be a good idea.

Robinson et al. (2013) tested these ideas in three studies, each involving about 100 people. Social competence was measured by the situation-based knowledge measure described above. Study 1 asked people whether they had a tendency to act aggressiveness when angry or irritated (a measure called trait anger). Study 2 used a scenario-based measure which asked participants how they would respond to various provocations (e.g., a person cutting in line ahead of them), including options related to direct, indirect, and symbolic forms of aggression. The Study 2 participants were also asked whether they would be motivated to “get back” at the provoking miscreants (e.g., the line-cutter). In study 3, respondents reported on their lives for 14 days. They told the researchers whether they were frustrated by events on each day and also told us whether they had engaged in hostile behaviors (e.g., arguing, criticizing others) on each day.


Figure 1. Daily frustrating events and Social Competence (SC) interact to predict daily hostile behaviors.

There were several interesting findings. Study 1 found that higher levels of social competence were predictive of lower levels of trait anger and this was true even after controlling for personality variables. Although people high in social competence wanted to “get back” at others who provoked them in Study 2, they were much less likely to endorse aggressive responses in these same situations. This was true for all forms of aggression examined. Social competence was also inversely predictive of daily hostile behaviors in Study 3, particularly on days involving high levels of frustration. In other words, there was a much stronger relationship between daily frustrations and daily hostile behaviors among people low in social competence (see Figure 1).

The research (Robinson et al., 2013) demonstrates that social competence is an important skill. People lacking this skill are more aggressive when they are provoked or irritated. Socially competent people, on the other hand, can “get mad without getting even”, likely because they recognize that aggression sometimes creates more problems than it solves – i.e., this behavior is often ineffective. The strength of the results encourages future research in which the possibility of improving social competence through feedback and training is systematically explored, particularly among populations who are violence-prone.

Author Information

RobinsonMichael D. Robinson is a Professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University. He is a prolific researcher in the areas of personality, cognition, emotion, and self-regulation. He has served as an Associate Editor for a number of journals including Emotion, Journal of Personality, and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

FettermanAdam K. Fetterman is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Knowledge Media Research Center (KMRC) in Tübingen, Germany. He received his PhD in social/personality psychology from North Dakota State University in 2013. He is a productive researcher who publishes in the areas of metaphor, embodiment, personality, motivation, and emotion.

Hopkins_Kay2Kay Hopkins has an MBA degree. She is currently a Professional Academic Advisor for pre-professional majors in the College of Business at North Dakota State University. In addition, she is a PhD student in Occupational and Adult Education, also at North Dakota State University.

Kumar 2Sukumarakurup (Kumar) Krishnakumar is an assistant professor of Management at North Dakota State University. His research focuses on the potential benefits of social and emotional abilities in the workplace. He has published papers in the areas of scale development, emotional intelligence, and workplace ethics.


Robinson, M. D., Fetterman, A., Hopkins, K., & Krishnakumar, S. (2013). Losing one’s cool: Social competence as a novel inverse predictor of provocation-related aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1268-1279.

Strack, F., & Deutsch, R. (2004). Reflective and impulsive determinants of social behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 220-247.

Thorndike, E. L. (1920). Intelligence and its uses. Harper’s Magazine, 140, 227-235.

Image Credit: Shouting Boss, by imagerymajestic, published on 08 July 2012 Stock Photo – image ID: 10091465

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 14, 2013 11:10 am

    Reblogged this on PUHHAC.

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