Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday Baffler: Is the world right-brained or left-brained, V

First we have the findings of over a decade ago by psychologist Daniel Goleman. As summarized in the Harvard Business Review:

In his research at nearly 200 large, global companies, Goleman found that while the qualities traditionally associated with leadership—such as intelligence, toughness, determination, and vision—are required for success, they are insufficient. Truly effective leaders are also distinguished by a high degree of emotional intelligence, which includes self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.
Here, empathy is "the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people" and "skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions," while social skill is "proficiency at managing relationships and building networks" and "an ability to find common ground and build rapport."

Then, in the current issue of Harper's Magazine, we have an essay by Thomas Frank that opens with a précis of recent research on "society's winners":
One 2009 study in Psychological Science found that, in conversations with strangers, higher-status people tend to be more doodling and fidgeting and also use fewer "engagement cues"--looking at the other person, laughing, and nodding their heads.

A 2010 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that "lower-class individuals" turned out to be better performers on measures of "prosocial" virtues as generosity, charity, and helpfulness."

A third study found that those of higher status were noticeably worse at assessing the emotions of others or figuring out what facial expressions meant.
In other words, while Goleman's research suggests that those on the autistic spectrum can never be "truly effective" leaders,  the more recent studies cited by Frank suggest that high-status individuals in fact have autistic-like tendencies. 

How do we resolve this apparent contradiction?

Is it that "high-status" is a broader category than "effective leader"? Perhaps it includes effective professionals in general, not just leaders. Goleman's findings, however, extend to high performers in general:
When I calculated the ratio of technical skills, IQ, and emotional intelligence as ingredients of excellent performance, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for jobs at all levels.
So there must be some other constitutent of "high status" that is dragging down the average emotional intelligence of this group.  But who are they exactly, and are their numbers really large enough, and their "prosocial" skills low enough, to have this effect?

Another possibility is that "high status" individuals actually have all the social skills that Goleman deems essential, but that, having used them to attain their status and then been corrupted by this very status, they choose frequently not to apply these skills, or to misapply them, on the many, many occasions in which it is more tempting to go off on a power-trip than to be a hero to one's valet.

But this does not explain why "high status" individuals are "worse at assessing the emotions of others or figuring out what facial expressions mean."

The other mystery, of course, is why the rest of us are so willing to keep bestowing high status on such nasty individuals--a mystery that dates at least as far back as junior high school.

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