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Not exactly what it appears to be
on 31 December 2003
There is a lot to admire here and I enjoyed returning to a genre (popular psychology) that I left many years ago. If my recollection is correct, Goleman’s book is a step beyond such “classics” as I’m Okay, You’re Okay..., etc., particularly in terms of scholarship. I liked the way he took the medical profession to task for its lack of empathy and its failure to provide emotional support for patients. He does not however address the cause, which is the desire of the AMA and its members to maintain the exclusivity and high economic status of the profession. I loved the affection Goleman showed for the children learning to be social.
However I don’t think the book is about emotional so much as social intelligence, and perhaps that is entirely to the good since social intelligence is a fundamental human need, and certainly for most people it is easier to learn social skills than it is to discard negative emotions and achieve positive ones. Most of the book is about how to behave effectively in society, how to make adjustments in marriage, on the job, with peers, at school, etc. Some space is given to the experiences in childhood that mold us emotionally (or so it is believed).
This is all fine, but I don’t think Goleman makes much of a case for changing emotions as he does for changing behavior. Of course, I’m all for that: if you don’t feel empathy, at least fake it! On page 107 for example he talks about the “utter lack of empathy for their victims” by “child molesters and other such offenders.” He describes “one of the most promising treatment programs” in which “the offenders read heart-wrenching accounts of crimes like their own, told from the victim’s perspective.” The psychologist who developed the program claims that the recidivism rate for those who complete the program is half that of those who did not receive the treatment. Even if true, it doesn’t follow that these guys learned any empathy. Most likely they learned more clever behavior, and of course the people who entered and stayed with the program are preselected to not return for any number of reasons, mainly because they’re smarter.
I have a similar objection to the idea (for example) that depression leads to increased death and disease. Certainly the life expectancy of depressed people is less than that of optimistic people, but it is not clear whether depression is a cause or a symptom. And the well known connection between social isolation and morbidity reported by Goleman doesn’t necessarily mean that social isolation kills, but could mean that people who want to die, first isolate themselves from society, which is the way in some cultures—or it could mean something else entirely.
I also object to the general idea that emotions, instruments of the evolutionary mechanism, can or should be much influenced by society except in self-defense. The purpose of many emotions is to drive the individual in a direction consistent with the needs of the species mechanism regardless of what society or the individual wants. The needs, concerns and prejudices of any given society are relatively ephemeral notions compared to the evolutionary imperative, and in many cases it’s a good thing we have instincts that override what society wants.
Goleman’s book is understandably written from the point of view of the society and as such puts social concerns first; however I am at that place in my life where I find the concerns of the individual to be more important. The (rather limited) psychological tradition that Goleman is an effective spokesman for, is not to me as important or as valuable or even as “true” as the psychological ideas found in the great religions of the world.
One last very important quibble: nowhere in the book is the most deleterious emotion mentioned or identified as such. That emotion is desire. Goleman, unaccountably, does not even identify sexual desire! He lists love in Appendix A but it is apparent that sexual desire is not part of that classification (p. 289). He allows that there are “hundreds of emotions.” The fact that he does not recognize desire would be amazing except we know that his readers would not like to hear about any problems with desire, and this book is pristinely PC with a clear eye to the marketplace. Desire is what keeps the economic machine of the society that he represents going! As the economists say, goods are limited, but human desires are infinite. Additionally the secret to avoiding the inevitable pain caused by desire is not any attempt to fulfill those desires, but to lose the desires. That formula would not sit well with his readers nor with his publishers.
Goleman is accomplished and clever. He went to the best schools and he has made quite a success of his education. He is politically astute, and he may be an expert on emotion, but he should know that the splashy idea of emotional intelligence is as vague, subjective and limiting as that of IQ, perhaps more so.