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Friday, January 3, 2014

The Downside Of Emotional Intelligence

I grew up with a kid who had absolutely no emotional intelligence whatsoever.  His brains were always focused on math, and while the rest of us sussed out girls’ interest and playground competitors’ intent, Howard Blatt went on to the regional Math Meet, MIT, and IBM.

Howard was an easy target.  He could be duped, tricked, and conned into giving up his candy, spare change, and comic books.  He was gullible, emotionally simple-minded, and incredibly dense.  Except where it mattered – intellectual performance.  The good side of Howard’s obtuseness was that he had no idea how much he was ridiculed.  He never noticed the hook-nosed caricatures of him on the bathroom walls, thought that his classmates were being kind when they asked politely for a quarter, and never complained when the coach gave him water boy duty without even suiting him up for a tryout.

Most of us have some degree of emotional intelligence.  We can usually figure out what’s going on with other people, when to be wary, when to open up, and when and how to interact. The most sexually successful boys in my class were able to tell which girls were hot, which needed extra attention and care before they would take off their clothes, and which would stay cossetted forever.  Billy Randall knew when to put his arm around a girl, when to compliment her hair; how to listen patiently to her tearful stories of frustration and lost love.  Most other classmates couldn’t read feminine signals if they were flashed in red, white, and blue; acted as if girls were simply boys with tits and banged on about gear ratios, football, and toads.

There is a spectrum of emotional intelligence like anything else. In my class it ran from Howard Blatt to Billy Randall, and the rest of us fit somewhere in the middle.  We knew when the Mr. Noyes had a hangover, when Mrs. Thomas had had a fight with her husband, and when the Headmaster was about to clean house.

Mr. Rills telegraphed his intentions like a signalman.  We could hear him banging drawers and throwing things in his office and yelping on the phone; and stood back when he threw open his door and stomped down the corridor to chop off some teacher’s head.  He turned red, and if the light caught him right, you could see the spray and spittle shoot out of his mouth into a fine, misty rainbow.

Billy Randall became a successful businessman and then went into politics. He was not as smart as many in our class and certainly came no where near the brainpower of Howard Blatt, but had been given an ability that most would die for – he had an uncanny talent for reading people, and a corresponding ability to get them to do whatever he wanted.  He was endlessly charming, had a silver tongue, dressed elegantly, and his suave but sincere manner effortlessly won over both men and women.

In a recent article in The Atlantic (1.3.14) Adam Grant writes about the dark side of emotional intelligence – how the Billy Randalls of the world are more of a threat than a boon, for they often use their insights into human behavior to their own selfish ends.  For every Martin Luther King who was able to stir his audiences to tears and commitment, there is an Adolph Hitler, a master at crowd manipulation and able to incite hysterical, murderous passions.

New evidence shows that when people hone their emotional skills, they become better at manipulating others. When you’re good at controlling your own emotions, you can disguise your true feelings. When you know what others are feeling, you can tug at their heartstrings and motivate them to act against their own best interests.

Social scientists have begun to document this dark side of emotional intelligence. In emerging research led by University of Cambridge professor Jochen Menges, when a leader gave an inspiring speech filled with emotion, the audience was less likely to scrutinize the message and remembered less of the content. Ironically, audience members were so moved by the speech that they claimed to recall more of it.

There is nothing new in this at all.  A good friend of mine at the New England boarding school where we were both students hated the place, and was waiting for a chance to get in his licks; and got it when the chaplain asked him to give the Sunday sermon. Bruce Baird was from a fundamentalist Christian family, and had been brought up in the severe, strict ways of the conservative Baptist Church.  No dancing, parties, fanciful dress, or lavish meals. Summer vacations were always at Point Pleasant, New Jersey, still a Baptist summer resort where observant families could relax in a religious atmosphere.

Not surprisingly Bruce rebelled at this stingy, imprisoning life; but at the same time learned the Bible chapter and verse, and had picked up many tips from the preachers who had harangued him and his family every Sunday. 

He decided to give a sermon about hypocrisy, and personalize it through thinly-veiled references to the philandering Associate Dean, the drunk organist, and the buggering History teacher.  He asked me to help and we wrote a sermon filled with Biblical references (“A generation of vipers” was our favorite), crafty modulations and insinuations, and dripping sarcasm and irony.

Bruce was a natural speaker, with a deep baritone and great voice control.  His performance was masterful. Once he got started in and revved up his old Baptist spirit, there was not a sound in chapel – not a cough, rustle, or whisper.  Each time he raised his voice, invoking Jesus Christ and his condemnation of vice, depravity, and evil, he looked at the most deviant of the faculty.  He did everything but point his finger and yell J’accuse!

When he finished, it was many moments before the congregation stirred, and started to talk among themselves.  The guilty who had been called out quickly exited the hall.  The chaplain look troubled.  What had he released in this ordinarily calm sanctuary of religious platitude?

In a study led by the University of Toronto psychologist Stéphane Côté, university employees filled out a survey about their Machiavellian tendencies, and took a test measuring their knowledge about effective strategies for managing emotions. Then, Cote’s team assessed how often the employees deliberately undermined their colleagues. The employees who engaged in the most harmful behaviors were Machiavellians with high emotional intelligence.

I once worked in an office who had the most canny, adept, and skillful manager ever.  She got whatever she wanted through brains, guile, and manipulation.  Nothing escaped her critical and uncanny intelligence.  She knew exactly what each of us wanted out of the job – advancement, recognition, public forums, or in some cases discipline.  Because she knew us so well, she could eke out the last drop of energy, creativity, and diligence from us.  We alternately hated her and loved her, but our allegiance was solid.  She was so good at her subtle manipulations that we all felt that she was simply encouraging us to work harder for the common good. 

Not only that, she played the politics of senior management like a seasoned Washington operative.  She cajoled, promised, threatened, and congratulated.  She had an unvarnished and unadorned self-image, knew exactly what she was worth and how dangerous she could be, and used every arrow in her quiver to get what she wanted. She was brilliant.

Once again, I am not sure what is new in all this research on the dark side of emotional intelligence.  Anyone who has paid attention can see how successful people have manipulated others for their own ends.  Some have used this power positively and have used their talents for mutually beneficial results.  Others have left a lot of human detritus in their wake. People with high emotional intelligence will always use it, just as Howard Blatt used his 150 IQ cognitive intelligence to develop first generation computers. Neither intelligence could be denied.

Author Grant readily admits that emotional intelligence can be used for good.  A motivated director of a charity with good personal skills can extract money from donors through appeals to compassion, status, tax deductions, and patriotism.  He has been manipulative, but for good ends.  A colleague who is sensitive to issues of gender equity in the workplace, can skillfully raise the issue without raising hackles, and can navigate PC waters with a steady rudder.

Grant concludes:

Thanks to more rigorous research methods, there is growing recognition that emotional intelligence—like any skill—can be used for good or evil. So if we’re going to teach emotional intelligence in schools and develop it at work, we need to consider the values that go along with it and where it’s actually useful.

All well and good, but I don’t think that emotional intelligence can be taught.  I know people who had finely-tuned emotional antennae from childhood.  They were always the ones who were the social arbiters of the fifth grade, the ones who advised others on fashion, boys, and teachers.  I have met people with brains but no clue, and who could walk down a busy street without noticing anything – not even a wild, flowered hat; a twitchy commuter with a nose tic; or the insincere appeal of the bum on K Street.

As much as many ‘progressives’ may yell foul, many if not most human characteristics are innate, genetically programmed, and reinforced by early conditioning.  I could no sooner transform Howard Blatt into a sensitive, New Age guy, than I could the man in the moon.  Some of us have brains but no emotional intelligence, and most others emotional sensitivity but not much computing power.  A rare few have both, and they are the ones you read about.

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