The study of human behavior takes many shapes. Sociologists spend their days quite differently from neuroscientists, and the same goes for psychologists and economists or political scientists. Yet there has been one trend over the past quarter century that has left no corner of the overall field of behavioral science untouched, and that’s the affective turn — a re-centering of cognitive and behavioral studies around issues arising from the emotions.
Daniel Goleman, who will be appearing on Wednesday, June 23, at 6 p.m. as the next speaker in the Hospice of Santa Barbara’s illuminate series, can take as much credit as anyone, if not for the affective turn itself, then for the dramatic increase in popular currency of its core insights. Goleman’s 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, took a relatively unknown idea from psychology and neurobiology and turned it into a permanent part of the common lexicon. Like other great threshold concepts such as that of the unconscious, emotional intelligence is something that can’t be un-thought. Once you’ve understood it, you perceive it (or the lack of it!) operating everywhere, and there’s no going back.
When I spoke by phone with Goleman last week, he reflected on both the impact of affective studies and on how much practical help this field has to offer today. As one might expect from an expert on the emotions, Goleman radiated a calm sense of purpose that remained fundamentally oriented toward meeting the needs of the other. What follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The journal Nature just published a “consensus” piece signed by several dozen scholars from a wide range of fields declaring that, after passing through periods when “behaviorism” and then “cognitivism” were the dominant paradigms for scientific research on human behavior, we are now fully immersed in “affectivism.” As one of the people most responsible for this shift, how would you respond to that claim? I would say that the cognitive approach is still very, very strong, right? The study and understanding of human emotion has become a very hot field in the last decade or two. When I wrote the book Emotional Intelligence, I was actually tracking the rise of affective neuroscience, which was the beginnings of the study of emotion in the brain, which has become quite a robust field.
Why has the study of affect become so important? One job emotion is doing in the brain is telling us what to pay attention to at any given moment — what’s salient, what matters to us — and that helps us organize experience. In this sense, it’s tremendously helpful.
So even when we believe we are being totally rational, the decision of what we are focusing on tends to be driven by emotion? Can you give an example of how that plays out? There was a study done at MIT that showed that disinformation spreads much further and more rapidly online than good information because it is more emotionally loaded. What’s emotionally loaded gets more attention, and we act on it more often. So there’s a challenge there for our society to help people understand the difference between sound and unsound information.
What will be your focus when you deliver your talk for the illuminate series? I’m going to share some practical tips and methods from great contemplative science. My last book was on the science of meditation, and I am going to share some of those findings and some of the methods that have been well-tested that seem very favorable particularly for handling anxiety.
To register for Daniel Goleman’s free talk, visit hospiceofsb.org/hsbseries.