What is Social Interest? Does it Matter?

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Think of people you know and admire a lot. What qualities do you like most about them? How do they make you feel? Chances are they are people who banish inferiority feelings in others and cause a positive experience instead. They have social interest.

Inferiority feelings rule the mental life and can be clearly recognized in the sense of deficiency and dissatisfaction, and in uninterrupted struggles both within individuals and humanity.”

Alfred Adler, Psychiatrist, 1870-1937

Social Interest

Social interest is a capacity inherent in all humans but must be developed and trained. It comes when a person has an inner sense of connectedness and continuity with others and with all of life and is felt by others. Social interest is a highly developed, natural empathy for all. Social interest is lacking more often than we realize. Let me tell a simple story to illustrate.

I met a man once who delivered a presentation to about fifty people. Before he started, he met each person briefly. Then he remembered every name. I asked him if he used a memory trick. He shared that before meeting people, he addresses any fears of judgment and consciously accepts what he discovers he is judging in himself. This enables him to relax and open to others. He said that most people maintain unconscious self-interest and why so often most cannot remember a person’s name seconds after meeting them. Self-interest trumps social interest.


I believe our lack of social interest is related to a common approach used in an attempt to create good citizens: our use of consequences. When I ask most people what the word “consequences” brings to mind, they tell me some version of “Something bad happening to me. I’m in trouble.” I teach that consequences are what we cause; positive or negative effects we can recognize by asking “what” and “how” questions. “What” do I want to cause? “How” am I using my power? “How” are others feeling about what I’m doing? Good citizens take responsibility for outcomes.

Recently on YouTube, I saw an experiment in which able-bodied people were caught on video parking in handicapped spaces. The usual warning signs outlining consequences to the driver were not working. So, a group (promoting social interest) posted pictures of handicapped people with the words, “Thank you for saving this spot for me.” Over and over, video cameras showed people pulling in and then reversing and parking elsewhere. Self-interest focuses us away from caring behaviors with often devastating effects. Social interest promotes caring behaviors and relationships that work.

Social Interest and Relationship Data

I recently read compelling research on what creates strong, sustainable, joyful romantic relationships. The gist: these occur when people are able and willing to meet emotional bids to connect, especially positive bids. This is when our partner is happy and excited about something and sends the signal that they want to share it with us. We can’t do this if we are focused on ourselves and oblivious to bids sent by others. Without openness to others, discontent and contempt are bred.

I also researched low recidivism (repeat re-incarceration) rates in prisons and found that where they were the lowest, it was due to teaching the inmates the Adlerian principal of social interest and the four core needs of all people to feel empowered, lovable, connected and contributing. The inmates were told, “You’re no different than we are. We all want these core needs to feel healthy belonging and significance. Take yourself out of the monster box. We are here to help you to find a positive, healthy way to get your four needs met.

All of this research describes the importance of healthy social interest, which has huge ramifications for marriages, communities, schools, and businesses. Are you ready to experience the positive effects of robust social interest? If so, call me or start by taking one of our online assessments.

As published in the column The Extraordinary Workplace in St. Louis Small Business Monthly, December 2014

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