Q.  Have you heard of the term “Social Insurance”? What new jibber-jabber is this?

A. Since studies related to Emotional Intelligence have found that it is worth 80% of your success in life—and since it is so often misunderstood—“Social Insurance” may be another practical way to understand this. Research by John Gottman and colleagues at the University of Washington (in an attempt to gain more understanding about relationships and how they function) found that brains apparently keep an informal count of behaviors and categorize them as positive or negative. Think of this as a positive-negative emotional bank account that resides in each brain. And it isn’t just tit-for-tat, either. It’s more than keeping an equal score of positive versus negative behaviors. Social insurance indicates that you need to keep a balance of at least four or five positive behaviors to every negative behavior in order to maintain good relationships.

Building social insurance in like making small deposits in a bank account that gradually accumulate and build trust between individuals. If you focus on trying to avoid making mistakes in social interactions, this can actually create a sense of anxiety, which can backfire as you attempt to provide four or five positives for each negative impact. In addition, small and even subtle positives appear to have the same effect as big positives. Therefore, finding ways to make many small positive impacts is likely to be the best way to approach social insurance. These could include smiling, using genuine mirthful laughter together, letting someone go first in line, sending a kind message encouraging someone who is going for an interview or facing a tough challenge at work, or sending a short text saying, “Thanks for inviting me to lunch. It was fun and I had a good time.”

Using the bank account metaphor for social insurance, the bad news is that apparently the brain does not wipe out negative balances at the end of the day, but instead carries them over to your next interaction with a given individual. This means that you can end the day not just being at zero but actually “in the red” with someone, which can add interest, if you will, to your emotional debt in their minds. Conversely, you can end the day with money in their bank. Leaving social interactions with positive outcomes is like adding money to their bank account, which tends to build trust, and may even resemble gaining interest in the deposit you made to your bank account with them.

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