Monday, November 6, 2023

Goleman's Emotional Intelligence

Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, was originally published in 1995 but there's a more recently updated in a 25th anniversary edition in 2020. It's not quite updated enough, though. 

He added a new introduction, but no study or concept in the book was updated despite huge changes in our lives since then and tons of new studies with updated technology. It's kind of refreshing to read a book about the problem with kids today without a single mention of phones, but it feels a little sloppy. Goleman is a science journalist without a clinical practice in psychotherapy as far as I can tell. While his book is about how to be smart according to the front cover, it's also being used in psychotherapy. It's a fast, engaging read, but I have some concerns about the content and application.

The book outlines the need for emotional intelligence (EI) to be overtly taught to children, explains the psychoneurology of EI, argues for the primacy of emotional intelligence for success, adds in the need for emotional supports, and ends with a call for parents to be better educated as well. The principle underlying Goleman's text is that there are four specific domains, adapted from Salovey & Mayer, that emerge from the activity of our brain circuits that have more of an impact on our general well being than does our intelligence: self-awareness, self-management (formerly motivation and self-regulation), empathy, and skilled relationships. Goleman explains that people will be better off emotionally, relationally, and vocationally if they develop their emotional intelligence to identify and understand their feelings as they happen, manage them effectively, understand other people's feelings, and relate to others more positively. With a calm mind, people can make better decisions, which positively affects all other aspects of their life. Goldman has used these domains to help to develop educational programs to teach children Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) in the schools through the CASEL organization. I feel like it goes without saying that being able to manage our emotional experiences helps in other aspects in our lives, so I'm all in at this point.

Part one of the book is rooted in neuropsychology. Goleman follows the path forged by Joseph LeDoux, Antonio Damasio, and Jaak Panksepp. Goleman explains that emotions are impulses to act, and they have a direct effect on our physical state, for example, fear makes us able to run faster to escape danger. The amygdala motivates behaviours (to fight, run, hide, mate), provoking the sympathetic nervous system into action. The prefrontal cortex can often slow these behaviours down to consider alternative options, but that's not always the case. Physical damage to either part of the brain can negatively affect someone, but another problem comes when emotionally charged memories provoke an old response that happens automatically before the prefrontal cortex can get involved. Once neural pathways are established in childhood or by a profound trauma in adulthood, they can be difficult to rewire. However, the emotional part of people is necessary to humanely inform the rational part, so not enough emotion is just as much a problem as too much emotion. I wrote about Mark Solms' excellent explanation of this a while back, and I'm not sure I would have understood this part of Goleman's book without that background. Solms is both clearer and more in-depth.

The second part of the book provides evidence that childhood emotional intelligence is more positively correlated with overall well being than is childhood IQ. It's a curious focus when so many discount IQ measures already, but it's pretty clear that someone can be brilliant, but, if they're unable to manage their own emotional expressions and needs, then they might not be able to demonstrate their brilliance. Absolutely. According to Goleman, the goal of emotional intelligence is not emotional suppression, but a balance of emotional responses with a wealth of responses to employ at our fingertips. Once emotions are more easily identified, then soothing emotional distress can become a fundamental skill, enabling people to affect how long they experience a negative emotion. Exploring some specific emotions, Goleman suggests tactics to defuse them that are very similar to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy strategies. Rage requires a faster awareness of early signs of inner hostility and a positive reframing of the trigger. Anxiety and depression can both benefit from challenging worrisome thoughts and distracting from them with reading or television, overriding a previously established neural pathway with a positive dissociation. People can also use optimism and a flow state to help rewire a maladaptive neural pathway in order to create the calm and receptivity necessary for empathy. He clarifies that positive emotions alone are not curative, but they give a bit of an edge towards self-motivation.

The next section discusses the need for emotional support systems. Without a strong friend or family group, access to a therapeutic relationship can work to develop emotional correctives, particularly if the therapist uses mirroring, repeating the clients' words back to them in order for the clients to better develop self-awareness. Alternatively or in addition, people can unburden themselves by writing daily, starting with high levels of emotion, then weaving in a narrative in order to find some meaning in an emotionally provocative event.

Goleman's text is bookended with educational elements, starting with how children can be taught, and ending with a discussion about better training parents to be an emotional coach for their child. Parents need to know the problems with ignoring their child's feelings as well as with openly accepting all outbursts without teaching alternative behaviours. Sounds good. But then Goleman puts a big part of the blame for mental illness on parental indifference to the needs of their children, allowing them to be babysat by the television or left in poorly run daycares or growing up in poverty with single-mothers in high-crime neighbourhoods full of drug use. He sees the solution to these issues in psychological inoculation in order to develop resilience in the face of hardship. He cites evidence of resilience as seen in displays of an easygoing nature and a winning sociability.

Okay, hold the phone. After suggesting we need to teach kids at an early age how to identify what they're feeling and how to manage big feelings in order to better navigate the world, he quickly slides into a resilience aka grit aka pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps solution. And there's an awful lot of parent-blaming rather than a closer look at the economic conditions that have parents working two jobs and not being able to fully attend to their children. There's a sense he thinks some parents are lazy, when they might be working around the clock, amazingly, just to feed their kids. I agree that all parents could use some education around how the brain works and techniques for helping their kids, but I absolutely object to the implication that most of the problems kids are facing right now can be narrowed down to willful neglect.

He also suggests, several times throughout the book, that being extroverted is the right way to be, the winning way to be. This was written before the pro-introvert movement headed by books like Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, which came out in 2013 and provoked a very extroverted friend of mind to walk up and down a beach telling everyone that she's just found out she's really an introvert! How the tables have turned!

Furthermore, structurally, the book fails to further the initial claim. Goleman's entire foundation of emotional intelligence is on the four domains: people need to become aware of their emotions and manage them in order to have the calm mind needed to develop empathy and improve their relationships and decision-making. While he explains the neurological workings of emotional development as it happens in the brain, he spends little time on actually cultivating awareness of the embodiment of feelings for the reader. Much of the book focuses on proving that emotional maturity fosters greater success than intelligence, but not enough on how empathy can be developed and deeper relationships formed. Of the four domains, only managing emotions is given significant space, touching on an eclectic variety of strategies in passing (meditation, narrative therapy, play therapy) without thoroughly developing any of them. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy strategies are employed frequently as solutions, often without being directly named, without connecting the effectiveness to the neurological sections of the book, and without acknowledging the limitations of the technique that helps to lift people out of a depression, for instance, only about a third of the time. Many of the tactics Goleman suggests go back thousands of years to meditation (Hindu and Buddhists), putting a positive spin on events (Stoics), and using emotions to guide reason (Plato and Aristotle), but adding in neurological signposts to the ancient wisdom gives the ideas a credibility that philosophers no longer have and an illusion of certainty in a field too complex to ever be firmly conclusive. I get that it doesn't profit as many people if we all just keep reading the ancient works.

The language and framing used really need another editing as they sometimes border on the offensive. Goleman writes in a casual manner that has popular appeal, but he disregards the care with language typically encouraged in the field. He says people with alexithymia "bore everyone" (45). He dismisses people with profound depression as superstitious worriers who just need to distract themselves. He says, "mood-lifting benefits of exercise work best for the lazy" (66), and refers to some people with ASD as essentially non-human: "failure to register another's feelings is . . . a tragic failing in what it means to be human" (86). Parents struggling to connect with their children are "emotionally inept" (168), and children who are shy are "off" (222). Again, he suggests that being outgoing is good and being quiet or reserved is bad and needs to be fixed. The hyperbole can be useful to garner readers, but greater caution should be taken when discussing mental illness.

Even worse, Goleman makes a few careless errors in his reading of research claims. He repeats the false claim that over 90% of communication is nonverbal, taken from a misrepresentation of a 1967 study, which was never intended to apply to typical conversation in the first place. He states that one in five children have to repeat first grade without citing a source. One study that replicates that claim found that 20% of grade one students of a sample of students not meeting minimum standards were held back, not 20% of all grade one students. Finally, and most egregiously, he claims that popularity in grade three is a better predictor of mental health problems at 18 than any other factor, citing a study on 58 children, which mentioned that third graders were better than their teachers at identifying peers who were likely to be in trouble in future, which is not Goleman's assertion at all. He applauds popularity throughout despite some more recent studies finding that many popular children display relational aggressive patterns and are popular because they are feared, which could be considered an indication of emotional self-control, but not one steeped in empathy. He comes close to victim-blaming when he puts the onus on a child to know when to stop abuse by making them self-aware enough to know if a situation feels wrong and developing a "repertoire of ways to disrupt what is about to happen" (229). Finally, I have concerns with unrealistic positive thinking, or positive delusion, that is currently resulting in capitulation towards a life threatening virus that has our hospitals more packed now than they were in the first wave, and a public that is oblivious to the serious of it all, getting acclimatized to rotating illnesses in their families. Many people seems willfully oblivious to the long term ramification of a virus that remains in the bloodstream, attacking organs months later. That's the downfall of positive delusion. And, how is that different from denial? There's no mention of Covid in the new introduction, despite that its effect on the brain was known by then, which should be expected in any current book about neurology and mental health.

Despite its shortcomings, Goleman's book is full of tips that can help in a clinical setting, specifically short-term work to reduce rage, anxiety, and depression. Clients can seek out triggers for these reactions, and challenge the thoughts that cause a behavioural reaction (CBT) or change their physiology to reduce adrenal surges (meditation). His discussion of the problem with rumination is useful to decrease rage by distracting from triggers so anger is felt less intently. Psychoneurological education is useful for clients to distance themselves from how their brain works, and it is useful for therapists to have further evidence to clarify why a modality might work when faced with a skeptical client. While the organizational structure doesn't clearly connect to the four domains that begin the book, there are sections for specific emotions and issues at work or in a couple or family, making it ideal to flip through for the precise issue causing a concern at the moment. At this point, it feels like it is generally accepted that it is useful to our lives to be aware of our feelings and be able to manage them in order to develop empathy and better relationships, which is possibly testament to the impact Emotional Intelligence had when it was first published over 25 years ago.

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