Social Intelligence

Reviewed by: 
Daniel Goleman
Bamtam Books
Alistair Schofield, Managing Director, Extensor Limited

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Social Intelligence builds on Goleman’s previous book, “Emotional Intelligence”.  In Emotional Intelligence Goleman argues that human excellence is based more on abilities of self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy and the ability to love and be loved by friends, partners, and family members than on mere intellect.

In this book Goleman develops the theme by looking at the way people interact in social groupings and how they influence one another at a subconscious level.

The starting point in his argument is that human beings are designed for sociability and that our emotions are contagious, in much the same way as some illnesses.  The reason for this is what neurologists call “mirror neurons”.  These are cells in the brain that react subconsciously by imitating (or mirroring) the neurons in another person.  In this way, our brains are able to emulate the physical and chemical state of another person, thereby creating a more empathetic understanding of them.

The most obvious illustration of this is when someone yawns and triggers yawning in other people around them.  Have you also noticed that you are far les likely to yawn in response to another person if you do not like them? 
Goleman describes how the brain provides two routes into it, what Goleman describes as the “high road” and the “low road”.  The high road runs through the neural system that works more methodically and step by step, with deliberate effort.  The low roads circuitry that operates beneath our awareness, automatically and effortlessly.

We know of these two ways of sensing information, at least in part, because of the unusual story of a man doctors refer to as “Patient X”.  He suffered two strokes that destroyed the connections between his eyes and the rest of the brain’s systems for sight.  Despite the fact that his eyes worked perfectly, he therefore could not see.  When he was shown pictures of shapes therefore he had no idea what he was looking at, but amazingly, when he was shown pictures of people with either angry or happy expressions, he suddenly was able to determine the emotions expressed at a far better rate than would be expected from pure chance. 

The reason for this is that the information from the eyes is also passing into the brain via the low road.  Incidentally, the information from the low road passes into the brain many times faster than that that takes the high road, which is why we tend to form an impression of a person before we have had time to think about the way they look, what they say, how they are dressed etc.

The book is absolutely packed with anecdotes and stories that illustrate the points Goleman is making, which makes for a very engaging read.  However, the question I never really got an answer to is “so what?”
The book is really a lengthy explanation, in layman’s terms, of what neuroscientists have been working on for some years.  It does attempt to answer the “so what” question in short sections with titles such as “healing relationships”, “the socially intelligent leader” and “the marital battleground”.  However, while each of these sections could probably justify a book in their own right, Goleman devotes most of the space to yet more stories and anecdotes, many of which seem to become rather familiar and repetitious.

Overall it is a book that I enjoyed reading, but which I found too long given the points it was seeking to make.  If you enjoyed Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, I am sure you will enjoy this book just as much.  However it is a book that I would only recommend to people who are particularly interested in the subject and who love anecdotes.

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