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Emotional Intelligence Needs a Rewrite

Think you can read people’s emotions? Think again.


You’ve probably met people who are experts at mastering their emotions and understanding the emotions of others. When all hell breaks loose, somehow these individuals remain calm. They know what to say and do when their boss is moody or their lover is upset. It’s no wonder that emotional intelligence was heralded as the next big thing in business success, potentially more important than IQ, when Daniel Goleman’s bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence, arrived in 1995. After all, whom would you rather work with—someone who can identify and respond to your feelings, or someone who has no clue? Whom would you rather date?

The traditional foundation of emotional intelligence rests on two common-sense assumptions. The first is that it’s possible to detect the emotions of other people accurately. That is, the human face and body are said to broadcast happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and other emotions, and if you observe closely enough, you can read these emotions like words on a page. The second assumption is that emotions are automatically triggered by events in the world, and you can learn to control them through rationality. This idea is one of the most cherished beliefs in Western civilization. For example, in many legal systems, there’s a distinction between a crime of passion, where your emotions allegedly hijacked your good sense, and a premeditated crime that involved rational planning. In economics, nearly every popular model of investor behavior separates emotion and cognition.

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These two core assumptions are strongly appealing and match our daily experiences. Nevertheless, neither one stands up to scientific scrutiny in the age of neuroscience. Copious research, from my lab and others, shows that faces and bodies alone do not communicate any specific emotion in any consistent manner. In addition, we now know that the brain doesn’t have separate processes for emotion and cognition, and therefore one cannot control the other. If these statements defy your common sense, I’m right there with you. But our experiences of emotion, no matter how compelling, don’t reflect the biology of what’s happening inside us. Our traditional understanding and practice of emotional intelligence badly needs a tuneup.

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Let’s begin with the assumption that you can detect emotion in another person accurately. On the surface, it seems reasonable enough. A glance at someone’s face and body language reveals what the person is feeling, right? Haven’t we been told that a smile tells one story whereas a scowl tells another? Raised arms and a puffed up chest supposedly display pride, while a drooping posture supposedly declares that someone is sad.

The big problem with this assumption is that in real life, faces and bodies don’t move in this cartoonish fashion. People who are happy sometimes smile and sometimes don’t. Sometimes they even cry when they’re happy (say, at a wedding) and smile when they’re sad (when missing a beloved aunt who passed away). Likewise, a scowling person might be angry or just thinking hard, or even have a case of indigestion. In fact, there isn’t a single emotion that has one specific, consistent expression.

When it comes to detecting emotion in other people, the face and body do not speak for themselves.

Numerous scientific studies have confirmed these observations. When we place electrodes on people’s faces to record their muscle movements, we see that they move in different ways, not one consistent way, when their owners feel the same emotion. Where the body is concerned, hundreds of studies show that instances of the same emotion involve different heart rates, breathing, blood pressure, sweat, and other factors, rather than a single, consistent response. Even in the brain, we see that instances of a single emotion, such as fear, are handled by different brain patterns at different times, both in the same individual and in different people. This diversity isn’t random. It’s tied to the situation you’re in.

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In short, when it comes to detecting emotion in other people, the face and body do not speak for themselves. Instead, variation is the norm. Your brain may automatically make sense of someone’s movements in context, allowing you to guess what a person is feeling, but you are always guessing, never detecting. Now, I might know my husband well enough to tell when his scowl means he’s puzzling something out versus when I should head for the hills, but that’s because I’ve had years of experience learning what his facial movements mean in different situations. People’s movements in general, however, are tremendously variable. To teach emotional intelligence in a modern fashion, we need to acknowledge this variation and make sure your brain is well-equipped to make sense of it automatically.

The second flawed assumption is we control emotions by rational thought. Emotions are often seen as an inner beast that needs taming by cognitive effort. This idea, however, is rooted in a bogus view of brain evolution. Books and articles on emotional intelligence claim that your brain has an inner core that you inherited from reptiles, wrapped in a wild, emotional layer that you inherited from mammals, all enrobed in—and controlled by—a logical layer that is uniquely human. This three-layer view, called the triune brain, has been popular since the 1950s but has no basis in reality. Brains did not evolve in layers. Brains are like companies—they reorganize as they grow in size. The difference between your brain and, say, a chimp or monkey brain has nothing to do with layering and everything to do with microscopic wiring. Decades of neuroscience research now show that no part of your brain is exclusively dedicated to thoughts or emotions. Both are produced by your entire brain as billions of neurons work together.

Even though the triune brain is a complete fiction, it’s had an outstanding public relations campaign. Today, decades after the triune brain was dismissed by experts in brain evolution, people still use phrases like “lizard brain,” and believe that emotions are tiny brain circuits that fire uncontrollably when faced with the right trigger, and that, at some deep, biological level, cognition and emotion are locked in battle. After all, that’s how many of us in Western cultures experience our emotional life, as if our emotional side wants to do impulsive things but our cognitive side tamps down the urges. These compelling experiences—of being emotionally out of control and rationally in control—do not reveal their underlying mechanisms in the brain. To improve our understanding of emotional intelligence, we must discard the idea of the brain as a battlefield.

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A reasonable, science-backed way to define and practice emotional intelligence comes from a modern, neuroscientific view of brain function called construction: the observation that your brain creates all thoughts, emotions, and perceptions, automatically and on the fly, as needed. This process is completely unconscious. It may seem like you have reflex-like emotional reactions and effortlessly detect emotions in other people, but under the hood, your brain is doing something else entirely.

Here’s the 20,000 foot summary: Your brain’s most important job is not thinking or feeling or even seeing, but keeping your body alive and well so that you survive and thrive (and eventually reproduce). How is your brain to do this? Like a sophisticated fortune-teller, your brain constantly predicts. Its predictions ultimately become the emotions you experience and the expressions you perceive in other people.

Your brain spends its entire existence in a dark silent box, called your skull. It receives only the sensory effects of what is going on in the world—the sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes that come through the body’s sensors—and must guess what their causes are, because any sound or flash of light or aroma or pinch can have many different causes. To make these guesses, your brain relies on past experience: What caused these sensations before in similar contexts? What worked to keep you alive and well and might be needed again? Your brain has the amazing ability to combine bits of past experience to create the closest match to these sensations, given the specific situation that you are in. These past experiences are predictions. Your brain continually predicts every experience you have, and every action you take, to guess what is going on in the world and what you should do about it.

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From your brain’s perspective, your body is just another source of information to make sense of—the thumping of your heart, the tug of your lungs expanding, the warmth of inflammation, and so on. These changes in your body have no objective emotional meaning. A dull ache in your stomach, for example, might be disgust, anxiety, or merely hunger. So, your brain spends most of its time issuing thousands of microscopic predictions of what your body needs (water, glucose, salt) and attempts to meet those needs before they arise. In the process, your brain also predicts the sensations that those physical changes would cause, such as feeling your heart pound in your chest, as well as what actions you should take. This constant storm of predictions—which occur automatically and completely outside of your awareness—forms the basis for everything you think, feel, see, smell, or otherwise experience in any way. That’s how emotions, thoughts, and perceptions are made.

Emotional intelligence, therefore, requires a brain that can use prediction to manufacture a large, flexible array of different emotions. If you’re in a tricky situation that has called for emotion in the past, your brain will oblige by constructing the emotion that works best. You will be more effective if your brain has many options to choose from. If your brain can only make stereotypic instances of smiley happiness and pouty sadness, then that is all you will experience and perceive in others. But if your brain is equipped to make you scowl in anger, smile in anger, widen your eyes in anger, squint in anger, shout in anger, stew silently in anger, and even bond with others over anger, then your brain can more finely tailor your emotions and behavior to the situation. In other words, you have better tools to be emotionally intelligent.

This ability is called emotional granularity, and my students and I discovered it about 20 years ago. We asked hundreds of test subjects to record their emotions throughout the day on handheld computing devices (in the pre-smartphone days). From the data, we found that people use the same emotion words, but not necessarily to mean the same thing. For example, some people use words like “angry,” “fearful,” and “sad” to refer to completely different experiences, while others use all three words interchangeably to mean “feeling bad.”

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When you learn new words, you sculpt your brain’s microwiring, giving it the means to construct new emotional experiences.

Emotional granularity is a bit like wine tasting. Wine experts perceive extremely subtle variations in flavor, even among different batches from the same vineyard. People with less experience might not taste these differences, but perhaps they can at least distinguish a pinot noir from a merlot or cabernet sauvignon. A wine novice is much less capable of making these distinctions—perhaps he can tell dry wine from sweet wine, or perhaps they both just taste like alcohol.

Likewise, people who exhibit high emotional granularity are emotion experts. Their brains can automatically construct emotional experiences with fine differences, like astonished, amazed, startled, dumbfounded, and shocked. For a person who exhibits more moderate emotional granularity, all of these words might belong to the same concept, “surprised.” And for someone who exhibits low emotional granularity, these words might all correspond to feeling worked up.

Emotional granularity is a key to emotional intelligence. If your brain can construct many different emotions automatically and make fine distinctions among them, it can tailor your emotions better to your situation. You’re also better equipped to anticipate and perceive emotion in others in the blink of an eye. The more emotions that you know, the more finely your brain can construct emotional meaning automatically from other people’s actions. Even though your brain is always guessing, when it has more options to guess with, the odds are better it will guess appropriately.

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How do you enable your brain to create a wider variety of emotions and improve your emotional intelligence? One approach is to learn new emotion words. Each new word seeds your brain with the capacity to make new emotion predictions, which your brain can employ as a tool to construct your future experiences and perceptions, and to direct your actions. Instead of perceiving someone as generically “glad,” learn to distinguish more specifics. Are they “overjoyed” or “contented” or “grateful?” Are they “angry” or “indignant” or “resentful” or “bitter?” More fine-grained emotions allow your brain to prepare for an array of different actions, whereas more generic emotions (angry, glad) confer less information and restrict your flexibility.

The idea that you can increase your emotional intelligence by broadening your emotion vocabulary is solid neuroscience. Your brain is not static; it rewires itself with experience. When you force yourself to learn new words—emotion-related or otherwise—you sculpt your brain’s microwiring, giving it the means to construct those emotional experiences, as well as your perceptions of others’ emotions, more effortlessly in the future. In short, every emotion word you learn is a new tool for future emotional intelligence.

People who can construct finely grained emotional experiences have advantages beyond the expected social ones. Children who broaden their knowledge of emotion words improve their academic performance as well as their social behavior, according to studies by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Adults who exhibit higher emotional granularity tend to be healthier with fewer doctor visits, less medication, and shorter stays in the hospital.

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Foreign languages are a great source of new emotion words for increasing your brain’s emotional repertoire. You might already know schadenfreude, a transplant from German that means “taking pleasure in another person’s misfortune.” Other languages are filled with emotion words that have no direct equivalent in English. Examples are the Filipino gigil, an urge to squeeze something that’s unbearably adorable, and iktsuarpok, an Inuit feeling of anticipation and impatience while waiting for someone to arrive. As you learn these foreign terms and the concepts behind them, you may become able to perceive these emotions in others and even experience them yourself.

Ironically, emotional intelligence is also knowing when not to construct an emotion. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a moment and consider non-emotional explanations for how you feel. Perhaps that jittery feeling in your stomach isn’t anxiety, but determination. Maybe that bitchy coworker is simply hungry. A feeling of distress when talking to your mother isn’t evidence that she said something wrong. Remember that your brain is always guessing, and sometimes its guesses are wrong.

Two decades ago, when Emotional Intelligence hit the bestseller list, scientists didn’t know about the predicting brain, or that the words you hear affect how your brain is wired, and emotional granularity was only newly discovered. Science, after all, is merely our best understanding of how things work, given the evidence at hand. In the face of new discoveries, explanations change, sometimes significantly. That is how science works. Many factors that were traditionally placed outside the realm of emotion, such as your vocabulary, have a profound impact on how you feel, what you see, and what you do. To bring emotional intelligence into the modern age, we must learn what these factors are—even if they challenge common sense—and use them judiciously to understand one another and ourselves.

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Lisa Feldman Barrett (@LFeldmanBarrett), a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, is the author of How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.

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