In the third installment in a series on the invention of marriage and cooperation, Peter McGraw speaks to Hillary Anger Elfenbein about something that makes cooperation more or less effective: emotional intelligence.
Listen to Episode #156 here
The previous episode examined reasons why humans could uniquely invent marriage. One reason is our ability to cooperate on a wide scale. In this episode, I speak to Hillary Anger Elfenbein about something that makes cooperation more or less effective, at least at the micro level. That is emotional intelligence. Hillary is a professor at the Olin School of Washington University in St. Louis. Her research focuses on interpersonal processes in the workplace, such as emotions, person perception, and negotiation. She also happens to be a stand–up comedian, friend, and semi-finalist in the St. Louis Funniest Person competition. I hope you enjoy the episode. I learned a lot. Let’s get started.
Thanks for having me, Peter.
Here’s the setup. This is the third episode in a series that looks at what makes humans unique. It’s their ability to invent something like marriage, make it work despite its flaws, and allow us to cooperate to get along. There’s this idea that strangers can interact, that we can have cross-cultural interactions, and that we can make large–scale cooperation work.
I‘ve talked to Eli Finkel about the all–or–nothing marriage and this invention of marriage and how onerous it can be. I talked to Bill Von Hippel about the social leap and the evolutionary and psychological processes that make homo sapiens so special. Here we are talking to you about cooperation more granularly around your topic of expertise, emotional intelligence. How does that sound?
I’m excited to be here. I’m all about it.
Is it fair to say that when we talk about emotional intelligence, we’re talking about why some people are better at cooperating than others?
I feel like I don’t know if the most interesting thing about these abilities is the fact that some are better than others. It would be like saying that when we think about math, the most interesting thing about math is that some people are better at math than other people are at math. Math itself is interesting. Everybody has emotional abilities. It is a very interesting question. Who’s better than others? For what it’s worth, part of the obsession we have with that aspect of the question is commercial.
The first people who started writing about emotional intelligence wanted to commercialize it, make money off of testing it, and sell it to companies, “You can test your workforce and prospective workforce. At $50 a pop, I can test your workforce.” I’ve personally been involved in some test creation, but I’m more interested in with whom are we more emotionally intelligent than others than I am with the fact that some people are better in general than other people.
That’s what has been unique about my research in this area. I would call it dyadic more than individual. Am I more emotionally intelligent than my close others? My first papers were about being more emotionally intelligent with people from your cultural background and having more of a struggle in understanding people across cultural boundaries to understand people’s emotions.
We are going to then return to both of those questions about better and worse and about with whom you may be better and worse. I like this idea in part because, let’s be honest. What the world says is married people are more emotionally intelligent than single people. First of all, there are so many problems with that assertion. Single people are this enormous group of people, from 18–year–old college kids to currently the oldest person in the world, a 108–year–old woman. Trying to compare single people to married people is already not a useful endeavor. Moreover, it assumes that single people are all single for the same reason. That is, they’re not good at relationships.
Married people are all married for the same reason. Do you get credit if you’re in a crappy marriage? Do you get to be put in the married category?
You do. The other beautiful thing is all the pro-marriage researchers say when you get divorced, you go back into the single pile. One way that you can make marriage seem even better is by ignoring the 1 in 3 that get divorced eventually.
That’s interesting. Is that a research finding? I’m not familiar with that. Has that been empirically tested that single and married people differ on skills testing of emotional intelligence?
Not that I’m aware of.
I’m not aware of anything like that.
There’s a lot of work that shows the negative stereotypes about single people. They’re selfish. They won’t grow up. They are sad people and these kinds of things. It’s pretty trivial to show that the world or the average person, whether single or married, thinks that single people are emotionally less intelligent.
To my knowledge, and I have a fairly good finger on the pulse of this research area, I have never heard of any research study that has trash-talked single people in this domain. Isn’t that interesting?
That’s because single people aren’t being studied. It’s not because it’s not true. I feel very confident that we could show that. It would be pretty easy to show that, frankly, but no one is bothering to look at these questions.
When you say, “Show that,” do you mean to show the null difference between groups or to show that singles are less emotionally intelligent?
It’s to show that people believe that singles are. I have no idea of the differences between groups.
I have a crazy hypothesis. I’m making this up. Married couples probably have greater heterogeneity and greater variance between them. You see a sharing of emotional skills between members of a pair.
I have a paper about this in the workplace. I called it Emotional Division-of-Labor. The idea is that you don’t have to be good at everything, but you need the people around you to make up for your gaps and complement you. I use the example of hostage negotiation teams. There’s somebody taking notes who is supposed to record the emotional tone of everything that happens. There’s the sniper who’s shooting, but snipers need great emotional skills because they have to be patient and keep control of themselves. They also have to read the room.
I’m putting that out there to say other couples would do that too. Probably some of the least emotionally intelligent people are emotionally intelligent enough to find somebody with whom they can couple and who will make up for their low level of skill. For what it’s worth, that is an emotionally intelligent thing to do. I almost think singles probably need more. They can’t lean on other people’s emotional intelligence as much.
That makes sense to me, too, because there’s a division of labor that exists within marriages anyways. They were built on divisions of labor. There’s one person in the field and one person in the house. The fact that this could get further divided up with regard to emotional aspects makes sense to me. Moreover, there’s some gender–related evidence about how women tend to maintain the social calendar within heterosexual marriages and how adrift their husbands are when the women decide to get rid of them and divorce them. The men are unmoored.
I’m glad you brought up gender. You were talking about how singles versus married people are. It’s a huge broad brush to paint. I was thinking for single people, “We need to split by gender.” Some of the oldest research about various emotional intelligence components shows that women are invariably higher. There’s so much debate over why. The why ends up being these stories.
You can make up any explanation you want, but in general, women are better at reading rooms and expressing their emotions to be understood by others. They have greater empathy, not just in how they feel but empathy in terms of being able to figure out what somebody else would feel in a given situation. In almost every skill you can put in there, women do better in these kinds of testing situations. In general, if you have certain strengths coming from one side, it increases the sum total of skills.
What it’s also suggesting is if you lack this, then you might need to seek out someone who can help you with it in terms of getting along in the world a bit. Let’s define what emotional intelligence is. The average person has a hunch and an intuition. They know emotional unintelligence when they see it. It’s a complicated concept. Let’s take our time going through all the sub-elements of it.
The best definition I’ve seen is that emotional intelligence is the intelligence applied to the domain of emotions.
I love those kinds of definitions.
It’s two parts because you have to talk about intelligence before you can talk about emotional intelligence. What even is it? The best definitions out there are around being able to solve problems to be effective with your environment. You apply that to emotions. What are some of the problems the environment presents you with that have to do with emotion?
What researchers tend to do is split this. It’s an umbrella concept. There are all these different pieces. They’re all under the umbrella name of emotional intelligence, but they’re quite different from each other. They correlate. They’re at least related to each other in terms of who’s good at which, but they are not that related. What’s neat is that there are so many different researchers who each have their model. Those models all have four branches, but they’re not the same four branches. It’s like everybody decided, “We always need four of these.” There are two of them you see in everyone’s models. The rest of them are whatever people want to say.
Here’s the good news. I chose you to be on this show and not them because I trust you more. We’re going to use your model or the model you subscribe to, but I want to pause before we get into these branches. I like how many metaphors we’re mixing umbrellas, branches, and whatnot. I want to pause and reflect on this notion of intelligence because we’re going to return to it when we talk about correlations across other forms of intelligence.
I‘ve never read much about intelligence besides my Psych 101 textbook and maybe a little touch of something in a cognitive type class or something but what you’re saying is it’s the ability to solve problems within your environment. More intelligent people are better at solving problems. They do so faster also. Emotional intelligence is how we address the emotional problems we face in life, whether intrapersonal and within yourself when you suffer from anger, or you’re depressed, or interpersonal. It’s either the conflicts that can arise from two or more people interacting in the world or the anger, sadness, and joy it may create.
At the beginning of your introduction to our conversation, you talked about what makes humans unique. I want to put it out there that there has been so much debate about whether animals have emotions. The answer is that anyone who has lived with one is pretty sure the answer is yes.
I should clarify it. What makes homo sapiens different than all other animals is their ability to cooperate with laws at a large scale and to follow a set of unwritten rules. They have this notion of theory of mind. For example, I can recognize that you don’t know what I don’t know. I can also recognize what you do know that I know and differentiate the two.
Thus, I can teach you and learn from you and so on, but because cooperating is still difficult for homo sapiens, there are still plenty of opportunities for conflict. Even with homo sapiens that you know well, sometimes it’s even more so. There’s a lot of relationship maintenance that needs to go on, whether it’s a stranger or non-stranger and how that’s so built into our DNA. To survive, we had to learn in a hunter–gatherer way how to get along.
That’s fundamental to where emotion comes in. There’s this theory called the Social Functional Theory of Emotion. The idea here is that every particular category of emotion exists to solve some problem for group living. That’s right down the alley of what you’re saying. You can take any emotion, even terrible ones, that cause huge problems and say, “Why was it helpful that it existed for humans to cooperate?” Some of them are obvious. Joy connects people. Even envy focuses you on goals.
People think of anger as a terrible emotion. Emotion theorists consider it a positive emotion. Sometimes it gets debated because it’s fun. It’s good, righteous anger. It’s meant to be an emotion of relationship repair. If I do something that makes you angry, that opens us up to navigate that. It starts a conversation. It’s also a warning. It’s a yellow light, but the other thing is emotions that are terrible to feel, like rage.
Why do we have rage in our DNA? It’s solving the problem of group living. Rage needs to be in there. Jealousy needs to be in there. We should feel it, but it’s a warning. It’s a cautionary tale. For group living, jealousy serves a purpose because it helps maintain couples because there are things that members of a couple won’t do because they don’t want to make the other party jealous. It curbs your behavior. Jealousy serves this important social function even if no one gets jealous.
That was almost the point. It was a prison. Ideally, you don’t go there, but the fact that it exists could curb behaviors. You could take any emotion you could name, and there’s some storyline you can make up. It’s made up because we will never know. You can’t experiment with this, but you could make a story around exactly what you’re saying. How do these emotions function in a way that solves group living? Sometimes people get it wrong and say, “It’s about individual living.” How would each emotion help you survive? It’s not about one person surviving. It’s about the community surviving.
Another thing that differentiates other animals from us is that we have a greater array of complex and social emotions beyond the typical fear and happiness.
You will laugh. Emotions researchers have come to the conclusion that there is no definition of emotion that is not circular. There are a lot of things that some people call emotions, and other people would call motivational states. I don’t think it matters what label you put on these things, but I’ll give you an example. Horny, is that an emotion? Is hungry an emotion? It’s a motivational state, but those of us who raised children are pretty sure that hungry is also an emotion.
We‘re set up here. People are going, “These two nerds.” Let’s get to these branches of emotional intelligence. One of the things is some people are better at solving their problems related intrapersonally and interpersonally with regard to their emotional lives. What are they? Where do we begin?
I’m going to list them out. The most fundamental is emotion recognition. Can you recognize other people’s expressions? There are a lot of ideas around emotion evolving as a communication tool, especially for Australopithecus. They couldn’t speak yet. We’re out there to catch an animal together. How do I get feedback? How do you bond? How do you express yourself? It was a communication tool.
We have all these nonverbal signals and vocal utterances that have nothing to do with language, facial expressions, body posture, and all of that. Can you recognize that? Are you any good at picking up on that? That’s huge. You know the people who can’t read a room. It’s funny. A lot of times, you think about emotional intelligence when things go wrong. It’s harder to recognize when things are going right, but when things go terribly wrong, there’s that person who can’t read the room.
We live in this online world. When I tape a show, I prefer to do it in person. It always feels better, but when I do it online, even though I don’t tape the video, we have the video simply to help with this process.
I like to think that you see how important emotion recognition is when you don’t have access to it. You see a lot of flaming online that you wouldn’t see if people could see the nonverbal signals of pain in the person they’re addressing with disrespect.
It’s why I reluctantly began using emojis in my text messages because people did not get that I was making jokes all the time.
This could be apocryphal, but I heard that even the DARPA people who invented email very quickly invented emoticons. Even engineers in the defense department created emoticons because of the idea of just text. People used to write letters. I’m old enough. I wrote letters growing up from summer camp. Even though it’s supposedly text, it’s not because you have your handwriting and you draw pictures. It’s expressive. People have the urge to express themselves, but you see it when it’s gone. That’s fundamental. Some people are better than others.
Emotional recognition is one. Two?
Empathy is huge. Models of empathy suggest there are three levels. Emotional intelligence concerns the first level but not the other two. The levels are, “I can understand how you would feel.”
This is the Theory of Mind idea.
Emotion recognition is that I see your expressions and read them, but empathy is that I’m anticipating in advance how something would make you feel. It’s a Theory of Mind. The second part of it is that I care. The third part is that I would do anything about it. 2 and 3 are important, but they’re not part of emotional intelligence.
Why not? I‘m curious.
It’s because they’re choices. They’re not abilities. I can choose to do something to help. You’re in distress. I can choose to help you or not choose to help you. That’s not about being smart. That’s about personality. Maybe it’s helpful to step back and say, “What’s the difference between an inability and a trait?” An ability is something that objectively you can do better or worse. In traits, by contrast, there’s no right answer. Extroversion or introversion, there’s no right answer. In a society, you want diversity on extroversion and introversion because the extroverts drive each other crazy if it’s all extroverts. You need someone to draw you out.
You need someone to say, “Let’s go to this party. It will be fun.“
The part about empathy, where you choose to help somebody, is a trait. Some people are making different choices. It’s those two. There’s self-awareness. Some people are unaware of what they’re feeling. There are some tests where people describe their emotions and find that people will consider people who use more differentiated ways of explaining their feelings to be more emotionally intelligent than if you ask someone, “How are you?” They’re like, “Bad.” Say more. That’s another one. There’s emotion regulation, which has two parts. It’s regulating yourself and then trying to regulate others. This, to me, is one of the most interesting parts because there are a lot of ways you can try to regulate your emotions. There are families of ways. We’re like an umbrella with branches going into families.
This is a huge area of research. There are so many ways to go about emotion regulation. It‘s incredibly complex. It is impressive how many different tactics people have to do this.
I’ve become intrigued by ironic tactics like acceptance. Accepting that your emotion is crappy is one of the best ways to relieve how crappy it is.
Let’s return to those because it’s a lot. Let’s spend some time on each of these if it’s okay. I want to repeat these. It’s emotion recognition, empathy or emotional understanding, self-awareness, and emotion regulation.
Emotion regulation of self and others is different, but then there’s a sixth one, which is what I call emotional attention regulation. That’s something I’ve done some work in. The idea here is this. Can you prevent emotion from distracting you when you don’t want to be distracted? On the flip side, can you tune into emotions even when something else is trying to distract you away?
It’s our phones.
Those are the six.
Let’s get back to reading the room because there are some very interesting things, especially about your work on this notion of emotion regulation. This is a controversial topic. It wasn’t for a long time, but you made it controversial because the belief was that emotion recognition was cross-cultural. Across cultures, you could identify when someone by their facial expression was angry, surprised, sad, or happy. This is Paul Ekman‘s work going back to the ’60s or ’50s. You came along and were like, “This doesn’t make sense.”
It was one of these moments like, “I can never do this again.” It’s having the beginner’s eyes of coming into a field knowing nothing and then having someone tell you what everybody knows. You’re like, “That can’t be.”
“That doesn’t seem right.”
My undergrad majors were Physics and Sanskrit language, the ancient language of India. I had no Psychology background coming into a PhD program. My idea was I wanted to study how cross-cultural teams, global teams, and diverse teams struggle with people using emotion in different ways and some of that getting lost. My original advisor, Bob Rosenthal, who’s so famous that people don’t always know that they interface with his findings all the time discovered Experimenter’s Bias. He discovered the double-blind studies. All of that came from him.
He politely explained to me that it was not possible for diverse teams to struggle with emotion because emotion is universal. It’s biologically programmed. It does not differ across cultures. I thought I was looking for a good citation for that. I dug in. I’m like, “Why?” It didn’t make sense. People are saying this. It turned out that everyone was citing Paul Ekman in 1972, which was the year I was born. They’re citing him or people who cite him. I couldn’t find anything else or any other evidence than this paper, which I then went and read. It didn’t say what people said it said.
What they did was they took pictures of White Americans, which ends up being an important detail, from San Francisco, which is an irrelevant detail. They took pictures of Americans expressing six emotions, happy, sad, angry, fearful, surprised, and disgusted. They took these pictures all around the world, showed people these pictures, and asked them, “Which of these six categories? Take a multiple choice.” Everyone did better than 1 out of 6. If you’re throwing darts, you’re going to get 16.7%. Everyone did better than that. Later, I found that there was a buried sample.
There was a tribe in Sumatra where they looked at and said, “All these White people are mad or angry,” but other than that one sample, everyone did better than 17%. Voila, emotion is universal across cultures. I’m like, “This makes no sense.” You would look at it, and Americans always did best. Japanese people performed the worst of the people who were in the original study.
There was all this writing going on. This guy David Matsumoto who had been a student or protégé of Ekman’s, started writing about what was wrong with Japanese people. I’m reading this and thinking, “The Japanese people were not seeing materials from their place.” I started looking for everything I could find where people had borrowed research stimuli from other places. They weren’t even intentionally cross-cultural studies. They were deliberately thinking that it didn’t matter.
“I can borrow research stimuli from someone in some other country, and it doesn’t matter,” but I found a couple of examples where the Japanese researchers created the materials and other researchers borrowed them, and the Japanese did better. There’s nothing wrong. I called it the in-group advantage. The cool thing was that years later, I met this real hero of mine. He said, “I’ve wanted to meet you because you’re so brave to take on Paul Ekman. It was the first thing I did in my first year in grad school. Were you that brave?” I said, “I had no idea.”
You were naive, not brave.
I was uninformed.
In terms of connecting this to emotion recognition, people vary on this dimension within a culture. There’s a cross-cultural variance that exists. What you did is point out this cross-cultural variation. What looks like happiness within the US culture doesn’t necessarily In Japanese. It’s not that these people can’t read the room at all. It’s more difficult to read a room full of White people if you’re Japanese.
We use emotion in subtly different ways. I called it a Dialect Theory. We have different dialects. It’s easier to understand people who speak in your dialect or a familiar dialect than to speak to people who speak in a very different dialect. There’s no fault or ethnocentrism within my theory. There’s no room for saying some cultures are better. It’s just different languages and different styles.
A White person in a room full of Japanese people struggles too. There’s nothing wrong with any of those people. It‘s just difficult. The difficult thing is there are people who are low on this. Your inability to read the room causes problems, whether it be you and one other person or you in a meeting, at a party, or whatever it is.
You can use these different skills to make up for each other when needed. If you’re self-aware about your abilities, which is very hard, some of these commercially available tests are self-reports. It’s such a bad idea because it’s like self-reporting your driving skills.
Everybody thinks they’re good at this.
It’s very far in the Dunning-Kruger. The people who are the worst think they’re the best.
I think about this as I was prepping this episode. I had a friend in graduate school. She was good for me because she helped me realize that I wasn’t that good at emotion recognition. She would say, “Did you notice how Carrie responded when so-and-so said that?” I was like, “I had no idea.“
That’s great. You said earlier, as you were talking about the conversation agenda, that we could talk about, “Can there be too much?” There is something beautiful about missing certain signals, especially signals that were not meant to be sent.
That’s why I’m so happy.
My first job is I was as a faculty at UC Berkeley. My department chair was this lovely person who used to say, “Your problem in life is that you notice too much,” which was interesting because I had published a paper. I called them nonverbal eavesdropping. The idea of this paper was that people took this test of emotion recognition. The people who did well on the hardest part of the test were not liked by their coworkers.
It’s because they’re so aware of every little sleight and everything if someone furrows their brow and so on. That could make you super sensitive and maybe inauthentic.
Sometimes it’s noise. Sometimes someone is upset because someone cut them off in traffic, and now you think they’re upset with you. It’s too much information.
There’s a little bit of a sweet spot with regard to emotion recognition.
I’m in a business school. I keep giving business examples, but on the subject of solos, there’s research by someone named Bill Ickes who has a protocol where people have a conversation, and then they go back later and tag where they felt an emotion that they didn’t say. The other party has to look at the timestamps of the tags and then say what they thought the other person was saying. The happier couples don’t recognize each other’s negative emotions as well. There’s some stuff you don’t want to know.
It makes good sense. You don’t want to be completely on the other side where you’re a bull in the China shop, and you don’t even recognize that you’re upsetting people or that your jokes aren’t going over. Can we turn to this notion of empathy? The ability to see the world through others’ eyes is the main element of empathy. These other ones are mediated by types of relationships and how much you value them. Do you care? Are you going to do something about it? A lot of people say, “I’m empathic.” Is there a way to signal that they’re high on emotional understanding?
Do you mean as far as measuring it or validating what they’re saying?
I don’t know enough about it to even know the right question to ask.
What’s important about empathy is that if you don’t have it, you get blindsided a lot. You know you’re good if you have good predictive power over your social relationships. You send an email, and you have no idea why somebody writes back what they write. You’re like, “That’s not what I meant. I had no idea they would be so angry about that.” That’s how you know you don’t have empathy. What I always say in those cases is when you have something important in the workplace, like a big email, maybe run it by somebody first. I’m not sure about the dating world. You necessarily run it by.
This happens all the time. Let me tell you how this goes. People who are frequent readers know my friend Julie will call me and say, “I don’t know how to respond to this.” We will workshop the response together oftentimes. That’s one of those moments of two empathetic heads.
This is the emotional division of labor. You’re putting the skills of two people together. We keep thinking of emotional intelligence as an individual ability, like how math is an individual ability, but mathematicians are allowed to work in teams. Why not work in teams as social creatures? I love that. I would call that also going verbal. Sometimes people don’t know how to read the room.
Another way to read the room is to ask people. We don’t tend to because we learn nonverbal signals and how to read them before we learn words. Sometimes it’s awkward to use an emotion vocabulary when you already have this other communication system you could use, like facial expressions and tone, but there’s nothing wrong with asking people, “I get the sense you look displeased. Am I reading that?”
One of my favorite questions, which admittedly I learned better late than never in life, is, “How did that make you feel?” This is something in a normal conversation to ask someone, “How did that make you feel?” It has multiple benefits. One is it helps you understand someone much better than asking them a fact-based question, but then it’s revealing in terms of their emotional makeup.
You could also own the not knowing. Sometimes I might say, “I’m not sure how to read the room now.” I’m not asking them a question. I’m revealing my lack of information, “I’m not entirely sure how you feel about this.” That’s an invitation to say, “How do you feel?” You don’t have to. We’re living in our assumptions. Sometimes what you imagine someone feels can be so far off base. I’ve started talking about something I call empathy mistakes, “There are layoffs at your company. You must be upset, but you’re delighted because that’s such a crappy job. You were going to stay there. Finally, you have a severance package. You don’t have to pay back your forgivable loans.”
Can I share one of these empathy mistakes that happens all the time? It’s when someone gets divorced. I recognize this because I purposely flipped it and then had a guest on the show, Amy Gahran, correct me. I reluctantly accepted the correction. That is, when someone tells me they’re getting divorced, I say, “Congratulations.” I don’t do that anymore because the normal thing to do is go, “I’m terribly sorry.” That is not necessarily the case. I believe that many divorces are good and that some people feel free. They’re excited about their new life. They don’t view it as a tragedy, and so on. What Amy suggested I do, and I now do, is say, “How do you feel about that?“
What’s wrong with congratulations? That’s funny.
It’s because some people are suffering. Some people do feel it’s a tragedy. Some people feel like a failure because the world makes them feel like a failure. You’re supposed to judge the goodness of a relationship by its longevity. By terminating it, it’s no longer good.
Maybe you’re helping those people the most.
If I get it right, that’s the issue. How you feel about that is usually revealing. In the way that people talk about their divorce, especially to me, the solo guy, they often feel very comfortable. As an aside, Hillary, I’m amazed by the stuff people tell me about themselves. There is something about this project. Something about how I relate to other people an openness, it is shocking some of the things that people disclosed to me.
Do you feel like this has changed your openness? Do you think that this has demonstrated your openness? I’ve always found you easy to talk to.
It has accelerated my openness. I‘ve always been a little bit of an unconventional thinker, but I feel like now, my judgmentalness is way tamped down. I have a very simple formula by which to judge whether something is wrong or right. I say it all the time. Is there consent? Is there no harm? If those two things are present, I’m not going to judge you for what you do.
I don’t know if the project is the signal or if there’s something about the way I am now, but it’s shocking the things that people tell me. I work very hard to be graceful and not judgmental and lean into those conversations. I get a lot of, “I feel good about it. It has been difficult, but I‘m excited about this next chapter.” I hit them with, “Congratulations.” You should see them light up. You see their shoulders drop a little bit. They often say, “Thank you.” They may laugh a little bit.
One thing that’s interesting about the way you phrased it, too, is you work at being non-judgmental but it’s still work.
Social norms are learned and have to be unlearned. I‘m careful about the old software that’s running in the background. Sometimes you do need to be a little bit corrective in a sense. I work at it less every day. I talk about solos being unconventional more generally. Once you start questioning the norms of relationships, it has this cascading effect in which you start questioning the norms of everything else because relationships fit into this system in a particular way.
You’re like, “Burn all of it down.”
We’re getting there. We’re starting.
It’s funny that we’re going sequentially through all these skills because they interrelate a lot. We’re now getting from empathy into emotion regulation and regulating ourselves and others. You’re trying to cheer up people, but it’s interesting because you need to read the room and figure out, “Does this person even need cheering up? If they do, what’s the route?”
“Are we going to celebrate or commiserate? I‘m with you either way. I’m on your side. I‘m your ally. I‘m the best person to call if you’re getting divorced.” Before we close talking about empathy, is it possible to have too much?
The first piece about knowing how others feel is you can get lost in other people’s heads. If you spend all of your time worrying about how will the other person feel, what about how you feel? Where does that fit in?
I could imagine you also have these shallow passing interactions. You’re going through the checkout stand at the supermarket. The cashier is in a foul mood for whatever reason. You are feeling that and experiencing that.
If you have these other skills you can supplement, then what you can do with that is change their day by cracking the right joke or something. If all you do is absorb it, even the second part about caring how people feel and then doing something about it can be exhausting. That’s empathy overload. If you think about all the suffering in the world, how do you think about anything else?
I enjoy doing that, especially in a service situation where I sense the angry hipster barista or the sad cashier. I‘m like, “Let’s have a little fun here.“
In every Uber I ever get in, I ask the driver if we don’t end up in some other conversation, “What’s the weirdest thing that has happened to you?”
It breaks them out of whatever mood they’re in. That’s great.
Taking a sincere interest in another person is already a big mood enhancer because people don’t often care.
Do you want to get into self-awareness?
Self-awareness was the next. Some people are not aware. They have physiological measurements in real-time. Some people can predict their heart rate changes better than other people can predict their heart rate changes. You have people who don’t know when they’re angry. You never have people who raise their voices. You’re like, “Why are you so angry?” “I’m not angry.”
“What are you talking about?”
What’s interesting about that one is it’s a bit of a precursor because if you think about how you regulate your emotions, calm yourself down, and psych yourself up, there’s a difference, but there’s a gap. For you to regulate your emotions, there’s a gap between where your starting point is and where you want to be. You need to recognize your starting point is not where you want to be to start the process at all. That’s where that part’s interesting. That’s the starting line.
I want to ask a personal question. I‘m fortunate genetically. I‘m not a puppy, but I‘m generally a happy and pleasant person and a peaceful man. Sometimes I’ll tell people, “I am in a foul mood. I am so honed in when I’m adrift or when there’s something wrong.” I don’t say, “I‘m angry,” but it’s like, “I am in a foul mood,” because it captures the turmoil I’m feeling inside and how it almost feels a little uncontrollable in that moment.
First, it’s a myth to say that we need to be happy all the time. The goal to never have a foul mood is an unattainable goal. We’re critical of ourselves like these meta emotions. We have emotions about our emotions, “I’m upset that I am in a foul mood.” When you’re saying that you’re in a foul mood, I would also question whether that’s always a problem. We have these stereotypes about how you need to be happy all the time.
Not only is it not realistic. It’s not necessarily the right answer, “These emotions are worth having/ those emotions are not worth having. You need to X them out.” Sometimes you have to own it and say, “You’re in a foul mood. What’s the problem with that?” The problem with it is maybe if you do something to other people that you regret. The answer is don’t be around other people. Watch a movie that is consistent with the foul mood you’re in. I love to analyze data when I’m in a bad mood. There are certain activities that I like.
It does focus you down.
That’s one of the social functions of negative emotions. They focus your attention on solving problems. They’re perfect for when you’ve got a problem. The issue is not the mood you’re in but what it’s doing to you and the people around you.
The nice thing about my world is because I’m solo, I choose to enter into connections with other people. I can cancel a date, delay plans, or stay home in the evening for some reason versus if I’m in a house filled with people and I’m in a foul mood. The norms don’t allow me to extract myself to skip family dinners, sleep in a separate room, or whatever that may end up being. I have a great luxury as a single person.
You’re solo and kid-free, which are two different things. I’m reminded. I probably shouldn’t interrupt you to do this, but I want to share my first memory of you.
I have no idea what this is going to be.
This is so joyful. It’s sheer joy. We were at that Wharton conference on emotion in retailing, which was so much fun. They took us on a field trip to Build-A-Bear. Since that time, I have become close friends with the founder of Build-A-Bear, Maxine Clark, who is amazing in every way. I love her to pieces. I was reminded of telling her not the part about you in the story but how they took us to King of Prussia Mall, which is in Southern Jersey. We went to the mall. We were deconstructing the building of the bear. There’s this long tube with white stuff squirting out.
I remember the sheer joy and having fun at work. Not that many people have jobs where they can first travel, connect, meet new people, and also share joy with those people. I never grew up with anyone in my family who held down a 9:00 to 5:00 job, sometimes not for lack of trying but not being able to do so. My parents were hippies. The rest of my family were school teachers and artists. I feel this luck. We have been able to have joy in this profession and not have to set a chain to a desk. I wanted to share that because it’s so much fun to be with you.
That’s a good memory. I had a fun time that day. I don‘t know if you remember this, but I built a pretty absurd bear. I built it for my niece and made it as big as possible. I made them put as much stuffing in it as possible to test the limits of this because I wanted this huge fluffy bear. We could pick out outfits for it, but nothing could fit on it. I picked out some tighty-whities, which you would normally put on the legs, and put it on the head of it. My bear was wearing tighty-whities as a hat. We had a good time. That’s very fun.
Getting back to the negative emotions, I have an advantage because I studied these things early in my career, but negative emotions focus you. That can be valuable. They can also make you more realistic, for example, when you need to be. The thing about it to me is negative emotions are signals that there’s something wrong. When I’m in that foul mood, I love how I’m an emotions researcher, and that’s the vernacular I use. It often gets me thinking about why? Moods are diffused. Emotions are specific.
If someone cuts you off in traffic, and you honk at them and flip them the bird, you can identify exactly why you’re angry and how you’ve been wronged, but when you’re in a bad mood, sometimes it’s like, “Where is this coming from?” It may not even have happened that day. It might be something that happened earlier in the week. The average person doesn’t sometimes recognize that there’s some inciting incident and that this can last for some time.
What it does is it gets me reflecting, “What is it? What started this?” Usually, it’s not one thing. It might be a series of things. They might be related or unrelated. Sometimes I shrug my shoulders and chalk it up to bad luck. Other times, I’m going, “This thing at work, this thing with the date, and then this thing here are all interconnected in some way. They suggest to me maybe there’s a change to be made.“
That’s living the functions. If all you do is say, “Every time I’m in a bad mood, I’m going to cheer myself up in some way, have a drink, or go for a run,” there are so many different strategies. All of those strategies have their place, but they can all be out of place. Sometimes the right answer is to lean into it.
If you’re in a bad mood all the time, it might be time for reinvention.
I’ll give you an example. I had a very close friend. We’re not in touch now. We had a falling out. I was upset about it. One day, I thought, “I’m glad to know I can feel that close to someone.” I thought, “Congratulations to me that I was able to be that emotionally open with somebody.” It was rewarding. It didn’t last. I love what you’re saying about how we judge relationships based on their longevity. That’s so profound.
It’s such a mistake. Let’s talk about emotion regulation. In the interest of time, we could spend an entire episode talking about the different ways that people regulate their emotions. You’ve highlighted a couple of them. One is this. I like this physiological one. Maybe you do some yoga, go for a walk, and get some sun and fresh air. Those are positive ones. You might lean a little into some comfort food or pour yourself a sturdy drink.
I haven’t had alcohol for almost six years, but I spent a lot of time putting alcohol in other people’s hands. As somebody who does stand-up comedy, I like being around drunk people as a sober person. All of these strategies can work, but all of them can be taken too far. I don’t pass any judgment on somebody who has a hard day at work and have a beer.
The only question is if it’s every day and it’s six beers, then you always want to ask yourself if this is working for you. Comfort food and happy hour are great. These are emotion words. Comfort food. It’s not discounted drink hour. It’s happy hour. All of that is great. All these are mood-altering substances. The question is this. When is it taken too far? We talked about physiology and acceptance.
To me, acceptance is the Jedi level emotion regulation.
I don’t know if you have to put it on a pedestal like that. I’ll tell you where it comes from. I very briefly attended Alcoholics Anonymous. They have this great prayer. The reason I’m pointing out that I attended it briefly is so that anyone who attends doesn’t look down on me too much for struggling to get the prayer exactly right.
I was the child of an alcoholic. My mom brought us to Alateen. I know the prayer that you’re about to say. It’s religious. Apologies to anyone who’s not into God, but it starts with, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The thing about God that I find intriguing about Alcoholics Anonymous is that it’s your conception. It’s whatever your conception of a higher power is.
They have changed it a bit in the years since then.
Even the original guy, Bill W, or the founder, was into psychedelics to try to get closer.
I didn’t know that.
He was big into psychedelics.
Nixon, you delayed this for us.
What I find intriguing is that’s the idea of acceptance. It’s not saying you have to be Jedi-level. It’s saying you could be three days out of a DUI where you’re court-ordered to be in this room, and that helps you. You could be at rock bottom, and that idea is uplifting.
The reason I say Jedi is it’s one thing to say the serenity prayer, and then it’s another thing to be able to live it. This shit–happens idea feels very Buddhist. It’s very stoic. Maybe it’s revealing something about me as someone who tries to create control and solve problems all the time. I‘ve come to the conclusion that I can’t solve the problem because for me to solve the problem, I would have to subvert who I am and take myself on a different course.
I had an episode on getting stood up and my experience getting stood up. My friend said to me, “Peter, my wife never stands me up. You have chosen a particular path. This is an outcome of that path. If you don’t want to get stood up, you can not date or enter into something else. That happens. This is the result.” It’s like playing sports and getting hurt. You cannot get hurt by not playing the sport, but there’s no playing the sport and not getting hurt. Trying to play the sport to not get hurt is the biggest mistake you can get. Playing scared is the worst. This idea of acceptance is like, “That happened again.“
You can use all of these strategies for emotion regulation for yourself and then for others. Each of them is the flip side. Having a drink at the end of a hard day versus saying to your friend, “Let’s have a drink at the end of their hard day.” Acceptance is powerful when you turn it social. You’re telling me about something going on. I say, “That sucks.” That’s a powerful thing for someone to do because it’s validating. It’s like, “I have no advice for you. All I’m going to say is that sucks.”
People make this mistake. It does fall from a heteronormative standpoint along gender lines too often. You want to solve someone else’s problems. That‘s often a mistake. You say, “That sounds hard.“
That’s the acceptance route. It’s not even Jedi level. It’s so simple. It’s validating.
I do it better with other people than I do it with myself.
Other people can do it for you. There are two other parts of emotion regulation. I’ll go through them real quick. One is called reappraisal.
Will you tell them in the context of the flight attendant study?
Business school research about emotion regulation started with this. There is this sociologist named Arlie Hochschild who’s amazing. She spent a year embedded with flight attendants. It was Delta Airlines. It was in the ’80s, and it was still glamorous to be a flight attendant. What she found was that they had two different strategies. Some of them used the strategy of what she called reappraisal, which was changing the way you’re appraising what’s going on.
Those five attendants would say things, “I think about the unruly passengers like toddlers. A toddler throws a tantrum. How mad can you get at them? They don’t know what they’re doing.” Those flight attendants didn’t burn out as much. They were happier with their job, but they had problems outside of work. They let people walk all over them because they were giving up the ability to hold other people accountable. That’s reappraisal. The positive side is looking at the bright side and taking control.
It’s the silver lining.
That’s the reappraisal. You take all the ways you’ve interpreted the world that make you feel a certain way and ask yourself, “What if my interpretation is wrong? I’m going to reinterpret it. There are layoffs going on at my company. I could be afraid, but instead of being afraid, I’m going to take things under my control and brush up my resume.” It’s these kinds of things where you’re reappraising the situation.
This is the kick in the pants that I’ve been wanting and needing.
George Clooney is in the great movie Up in the Air. It’s a little bit old.
It’s a surprisingly solo movie. Let me set up the movie, and then you can talk about the reappraisal. George Clooney plays a consultant whose job is to show up in cities and do mass layoffs. He’s on the road all the time. He’s pursuing a number of miles. He’s a frequent flyer. He does all the things. He’s got all the cards, all the loyalty programs, and all these things. He’s the lone wolf. He even has a talk about this autonomy and so on. Much of the movie resonates with me in some ways as a solo in a sense, but he starts an affair with this woman on the road.
He doesn’t think it’s an affair. He thinks it’s a relationship.
It’s a very un–Hollywood ending.
It turns out that, “What do you have to offer? You’re not available enough. This is an affair.” What strikes me early in the movie is they show him doing the layoffs. What he does is he’s reappraising for these people because he doesn’t say, “You’re fired. We need to lay off people.” What he says is, “Peter, is this the job that you dreamed of when you were a kid? Did you look ahead and say, ‘This is my dream?'” He’s saying these things, “What did you want to be when you were a kid?” “I wanted to have my own restaurant.” “You need to do that. You need to go and create your restaurant.”
He’s reappraising for people this terrible thing. Instead of making them angry, he’s trying to shift the way they interpret the situation they’re in. It’s brilliant. That points out something too, which is that people think emotional intelligence is uniformly good. The truth is it’s an ability like any other ability. If you’re a smart person with traditional intelligence, you can use that to cure cancer, or you can use that smart to be a good criminal who doesn’t get caught. Some of the most emotionally intelligent people are incredibly manipulative. It doesn’t have to be used for the forces of good.
That’s what George Clooney is. He’s very manipulative. He’s saying, “Don’t get angry about being laid off. Be inspired to go out and create your restaurant.” That’s what some of the flight attendants were doing, but the other flight attendants were doing what’s called suppression. They were plastering a smile on their face. They were burned out. They were unhappy, but their home lives were fine. Here’s the thing about the reappraisal. You say, “Unruly passengers are scared.” If you do that and then get outside, you’re making excuses for everybody and never holding people accountable for bad behavior.
This is showing that every emotion regulation can be taken too far. They’re happier in this job that’s very stressful, but on the other hand, they’re willing to be emotionally abused outside. What you see in a lot of abusive relationships is reappraisal that has gone too far. People say, “He can’t help but be abusive because that’s what his parents did to him. It’s only when he’s drinking.” These ways that people don’t hold relationship partners responsible are an example of an ability that has been taken too far.
This is one of the more interesting revelations because it’s easy to feel like you’re not good at this stuff that you’re lacking because you feel the failures oftentimes. There are consequences and conflict. You end up feeling bad and making mistakes, or other people make you feel bad. You’re not good at regulating your responses, and so on. There is something that makes me feel a little better. You don’t want to be at the top of the scale because that also has some downsides to it.
It takes away the authenticity of the human experience. If you said, “There is a bright side to every single thing,” that’s pretty ugly, “Your mother died. Look at the bright side. Now, you have a house or something.” Why would you talk to someone like that? There are some things that don’t have a bright side. I said that to Shane once. He said that there are tragedies where he has found a bright side. I respect that. We all can look back at tragedies we have, but I wouldn’t say that at the outset. In retrospect, you can find the silver lining.
You’re like, “ I’m so great this is happening. It’s so great.” Hillary is mentioning Shane Mauss, our mutual friend who had a big effect on both of our lives. Let’s hit a few things fast. What predicts emotional intelligence? In terms of individual differences, you mentioned gender already. You’ve also mentioned some traits like the big five. Are there any personality traits that predict emotional intelligence?
The correlations are surprisingly low. Agreeable people think they are more emotionally in touch if they are not. When people are predicting their emotional intelligence, I call that emotional self-efficacy. It’s how much you care about these things. Social dominance is a component of extroversion and openness to some extent, but those correlations are small.
Some of the big things that you see around gender vary across occupations. I’m trying to think of some of the other professions that have been tested, but my favorite finding along that line is that mid-level managers tend to have higher emotional intelligence in some samples that were tested. I’m thinking of a particular event. I’ll tell you one. Teachers had higher emotional intelligence than school principals.
I get that. You’re saying middle managers are probably better than CEOs.
What happens is you don’t have to manage your emotions anymore. This is the division of labor. Once you’re at the top, the more powerful you are, and the higher status you have, the more other people make up for the gaps around you. You can lose your temper, blow past someone’s discomfort, and do all these things because other people are picking up the pieces or sweeping up after you. They’re situational. It’s not about the person you are, but it’s about the situation you find yourself in as well.
What about intelligence, more generally predicting emotional intelligence? We started this conversation by saying that emotional intelligence is a subset of intelligence more generally. Intelligence is about solving problems. Emotional intelligence is about solving emotional problems. I don’t know if anybody uses the term anymore when referring to intelligence.
They do. Where you’re going with this is, “Do all these things hang together?” This exact question is a huge area of research. The nerdy name for it is the positive manifold. The positive manifold says all these little skills, like spatial reasoning, verbal reasoning, emotion recognition, and all of these things should hang together. Interestingly, they do. They’re not high correlations, but you don’t want the correlations to be too high or else it suggests that they’re redundant. IQ does correlate with emotional intelligence when emotional intelligence is measured. It doesn’t correlate with self-reported emotional intelligence, which is a paradox. The idea that you could be self-aware about your self-awareness is funny.
If you want to test someone’s math abilities, that’s pretty straightforward. All you need to do is give them a sheet of paper with a bunch of math problems. It does okay.
Those math problems came from somewhere. They came from people who are good at math.
It seems to me one of the ways that you would want to do this is you would want other people to do the judging, “How self-aware is Peter?”
This is such a good point. I hope your readers find this interesting. The biggest question with emotional intelligence testing truly is, “What’s the right answer?” You give people a test. For math, it’s very clear. You take people who are geniuses at math. They can decide together what the right answer is. You can give a math test where only 5% of the people can get the hardest question, but you still say that 5% got it and not the 95% because the 95% may have consensus on some wrong answer, but with emotional intelligence testing, the concern is what’s the right answer. Sometimes there is a right answer.
In an emotional recognition test, depending on the instructions, I might show you a happy face and say, “What was the person trying to convey?” There is a right answer because that person has something in mind. They may be a bad actor, but they were trying something. There are a couple of places where you have the “right answer,” but a lot of times, what they do in these tests is that they say, “The right answer is the consensus that everyone picks.”
There’s this one test that was normed by University of New Hampshire undergrads. Whatever the majority of the University of New Hampshire undergrads said is the right answer. That’s ridiculous. That same test had expert consensus norms, which was the consensus of people who are in ISRE or the International Society for Researchers on Emotion. That was to find the right answer. Peter, you, as a fellow academic, can say that these are not the arbiters.
The people studying emotions are not experts in any of this.
They’re not personally living the most emotionally intelligent life at all times. I don’t know if you’ve talked about this with any other guest, but sometimes we talk about Me-search. A lot of us do research in areas that we find particularly intriguing because they’re challenging to us.
Here I am doing the Solo project not because I was having wonderful relationships but because I was struggling in them. Let’s do three questions to close. Two are from the community, and one is from me. If you’re interested in this, I have an online community. You can sign up for it at PeterMcGraw.org/solo. The first question is this. How can society move past the widespread presumption that coupled people are more emotionally intelligent than single people? We have already chatted about this. Let’s assume this presumption exists. To my knowledge, no one has measured it, but I don’t think it’s a stretch.
I don’t think it’s a stretch that people probably presume it, but it’s not true.
I don’t know how true or not true it is, but let’s suppose it is true for a moment that married people are emotionally more intelligent than single people. This is going to be a little wonky, but anytime you look at differences between groups as a scientist, you often have normal distributions. What the media and the researchers pay attention to is the difference in means and average. With a big enough sample size, you can find a difference and know it’s a real difference. It’s statistically significant. The problem is that the distributions overlap greatly. Knowing whether one person is in a group or any one person is in a group or another group tells you nothing about their abilities.
It tells you only the slightest. A good metaphor for it is height. The average American man is five inches taller than the average American woman. Somebody asks, “How tall is somebody you’ve never met?” Knowing if they’re a man or a woman would be helpful, but it’s certainly not going to give you a very good predictive power. I want to go to this community member’s question, “What should you do?” I would ask them back what’s their goal, “What can you do about this widespread myth?” I don’t know if one person is going to change the widespread myth, but how is that myth affecting you? In what way are people responding to you in an unwelcome way because they hold that myth?
If I may, I’m going to venture a guess. It goes something like this, “You’re so great. Why are you single?” This saying is well-meaning, but it’s so backhanded because what it says is, “It seems like everything is fine, but what’s wrong with you that you can’t make this work? What is it? You can’t commit. You lack emotional intelligence. You’re selfish, or whatever the reason for it is.” The problem is people are single for hundreds of different reasons. Moreover, it presupposes that people want to be coupled up.
You’re in a position where you have to explain and defend yourself why. As a coupled person, I don’t have that, but as a person who doesn’t drink alcohol, I have that all the time. People constantly ask, “Why are you not drinking?” You’re like, “It’s not even your business. It’s not even funny.” I’ll make up stuff. I make up all kinds of things. This question puts you on the defensive to say the why, “There’s nothing wrong with you that I can see. Tell me the thing that’s wrong with you that’s stopping this good thing from happening.”
This is the question that lets me editorialize, but there’s no strong answer.
It’s your show.
Emotional intelligence is not limited to the relationship escalator. It is present in your familial relationships. It’s present in your friendships. It’s present in your professional relationships. It’s present in the interactions that you have with strangers. To assume that because someone is single means that they’re struggling in all these other areas of their life doesn’t make sense to me.
Do you ever throw the question back at people? Occasionally, I’ll be like, “Why are you drinking?” Do you ever throw the question back and say, “What makes you think I don’t want to be single?”
I don’t have to do that anymore because of this project.
People know the answer.
For example, single people are more involved in their communities. They often have a greater network of friends. The evidence that single people lack emotional intelligence is not there. In some ways, you could turn it around and say, “It’s unfortunate that you can only function emotionally within this dyad. I, as a single person, have breadth in my ability to interact emotionally in the world.“
That gets us back to the beginning of this conversation because a single person doesn’t benefit from the emotional division of labor. They probably have greater skills because they’re dependent on having each of these skills. They can’t say, “The household stuff is hers. Killing spiders is for him.” You have to kill the spiders and deal with the household. The research hasn’t been done, but we’re going to do it. Maybe the next time I collect emotional intelligence assessments, I should find a way to ask people about their coupling. I would suspect the opposite. I would suspect single people are going to do better on these.
I’m not sure about that, but I appreciate this. Let’s get to the next one. How much of emotional intelligence is innate?
I have some studies I’ve been doing on behavioral genetics. It’s a new frontier. There’s some work on emotion regulation from the perspective of dysregulation. There is a lot of behavioral genetics research about disease and conditions but not a lot about health and wellness. There’s this amazing researcher who wrote Three Laws of Behavior Genetics. It’s this guy Eric Turkheimer. His first law is that everything is partly genetic. It’s also early childhood. The developmental research is pretty clear about how much parents have a role in teaching their children these skills.
As a mom myself, I’m constantly saying things that I realize are in that direction. You teach empathy, “When you pulled the cat’s tail, how do you think that made the cat feel? Does this look like a happy face to you? Please apologize to someone.” Another one is the emotion regulation of others, “No matter what grandma gives you, act like you’re happy with it.” We’re constantly teaching kids to have these skills.
I’m going to make a plug. This is not our first time talking on a show. I have a previous show that I never mentioned on here called I’m Not Joking. We have a show about playful parenting and using comedy to teach children and help socialize children in a way that is uplifting for them and boundary–producing. The final question is my question. Suppose you’ve been reading this and reflecting, and you’re like, “I’m not great at one of these branches,” how do you get better?
I’ve got some good news and bad news. I’m going to start with the bad news so I can end with the good news. There are so many programs out there to try to train. Everyone who wants to hang up a shingle and call themselves a consultant has their protocol, lesson plan, or curriculum. When people take all these lesson plans and subject them to scientific scrutiny like the pre-post control condition type of testing, the bad news is that almost nothing works.
Save your money because the good news is that there are two things that consistently work. They’re both free. They are motivation and practice. Motivation is simply this conversation we have had. I’ll give you an example in case that sounds hokey. There was a study also by Bill Ickes. It was an emotion recognition test. He told half the people, “This test predicts leadership emergence.” He told the other half of the people nothing about the test. Who did better? Simply thinking and paying attention matters.
It’s already that, and then practice. There are some long tests that people do better in the second half. Practice alone. The thing about practice is that the value accelerates with feedback. Find a trust buddy or somebody at work or at home that you can bounce ideas off of so you come out of a meeting, and you can say what your friend was saying, “Did you see how such and such? I had a hard time in that meeting figuring out what was going on.”
It’s how people you can talk to about this pass things by. That’s going to be more effective than any classroom instruction is going to be because that’s the value of practice. Psychology doesn’t have a lot of formulas, but I like it when we find one. Here’s what I like, which is about human abilities more generally, not just emotional intelligence but in general. How will you perform in a certain domain? It’s a function of your capability and effort.
We know this intuitively because we have expressions in English like overachiever and underachiever. An underachiever is somebody with high capability and low effort, and therefore, low performance. We look down on that, but an overachiever is squeezing all the value out of whatever ability they have by working hard. That’s the answer. Don’t take a bunch of training courses. Be an emotional overachiever, put in the effort, and try.
Anybody who knows me personally would probably find it funny. It’s so easy to make mistakes. The question is this. When you make mistakes, do you show the good faith that helps you come back? This goes back to the earlier part of the conversation about how emotional intelligence isn’t about being a good person. It’s a skill. You could almost imagine this 2×2 of good intentions and no good abilities. All four of those cells are filled. There are manipulative bad intentions and good abilities. No one likes somebody who has bad intentions and bad abilities, but then the other cells are more interesting.
What happens if you have bad abilities but good intentions? The answer is to let your intentions be known. People who care about you are going to fill in those gaps, laugh, and have a sense of humor about it. You see this at work sometimes. There are people who are lovable fools. I don’t know what you might call them. People band around them and warn people, “So-and-so is going to do this boneheaded thing. Don’t think about it. They didn’t mean it that way or whatever it is.”
That’s the answer. You can be self-aware about your skills and help people understand where you don’t do well. We do this very intuitively with other skills. You go into a team and say, “I’m not the math person here. I have an MFA in writing. I’m happy to do all the drafting of manuscripts or whatever it is.” It’s having that self-awareness of your skills and being willing to say that out loud to the people you’re interacting with, “I’m bad at reading rooms. Help me out here, people.”
We can have a hand signal. Hillary, that’s wonderful. Thank you so much for your time. Thank you for the great work you’re doing in this area. It has been wonderful to see you.
Peter, thank you so much for having me. It’s so awesome to see you, as always.
- Hillary Anger Elfenbein
- Eli Finkel
- Bill Von Hippel – LinkedIn
- Emotional Division-of-Labor – Article
- Paul Ekman
- David Matsumoto
- Amy Gahran – Previous Episode
- Shane Mauss
- International Society for Researchers on Emotion
- Three Laws of Behavior Genetics – Article
- I’m Not Joking – Previous Episode
About Hillary Anger Elfenbein
In her day job, Hillary Anger Elfenbein is the John and Ellen Wallace Distinguished Professor at the Olin School of Washington University in St. Louis. She holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior, a Master’s degree in Statistics, and undergraduate degrees in Physics and Sanskrit, all from Harvard University. Her research focuses on interpersonal processes in the workplace, such as emotion, person perception, and negotiation. By night she is a mediocre stand-up comedian, who recently placed as a semi-finalist in the St. Louis Funniest Person Competition.