Recently Howard Gardner spoke at New Trier High School (link to the announcement and an audio file of the talk here). I couldn’t attend, but apparently 850 people showed up – wow! For those who are not familiar with the name, Gardner proposed the theory of multiple intelligences.
Thinking about emotional intelligence reminded me of something I read about last spring, which in turn reminded me that every now and then I see or read about something in the popular culture that I think is a great example of this or that psychological theory. In order to share those instances and discuss them further, I’m starting a new series called Everyday Psychology. The goal will be to help make seemingly academic psychological concepts and/or theories more accessible to the general public by sharing real-world examples.
To kick off the Everyday Psychology series, I’d like to introduce you to a man they are calling the Snackman; a true life subway hero.
The Concept: I read this article last spring, and it struck me as a perfect example of something psychologists refer to as emotional intelligence. There is controversy in the field about whether or not emotional intelligence (EI) is an actual intelligence, with measurable cognitive aspects such as those measured by the Wechsler Intelligence test battery (IQ test), or if it is more of a personal trait or ability. You can read more about that debate elsewhere, if you’re interested. I agree with David Wechsler that there are “non-intellective” factors which influence “intelligent behavior.” I also agree with Howard Gardner’s assertion that traditional methods for measuring intelligence do not “fully explain performance outcomes.” So I am proceeding from the assumption that there is such a thing as emotional intelligence, whether or not we resolve if and how those factors can be measured.
(video warning – language NSFW):
The Example: Charles Sonder was riding the subway in New York, eating a bag of Pringles, when he saw a man and a woman get into a physical altercation. Apparently the woman initiated the violence by hitting and kicking the man. Rather than start shouting at them to stop, or calling for help, or physically restraining the woman, Sonder simply edges his way over to the fighting couple and silently stands between them. The whole time, he’s eating his Pringles, projecting an aura of casual indifference. But his physical presence, acting as a human barrier between the man and woman, is enough to defuse the situation and shift the woman’s attention away from physically lashing out to merely hurling insults.
The Discussion: Sonder’s actions are a great example of EI. I think the casual snacking was a key component to the effectiveness of his intervention. He says he was just trying to get the couple to stop hitting each other, and that he didn’t stop eating the chips because he was hungry. Even though Sonder downplayed his actions, I think his instinct to keep eating the chips is a central part of the EI factor. He read the high emotions of the situation, and probably surmised that telling the couple to stop would not be effective and, in fact, might cause them to escalate. A direct challenge would likely have been viewed as threatening to either the man or the woman or both. By pretending to be involved in something else, to not really notice what was happening, Sonder became simply a neutral presence rather than a lightning rod. His neutrality is what allowed the explosive psychological energy to dissipate, as he became simply a nondescript physical buffer. If he had not been eating chips, I doubt this would have worked nearly as well.
The Four Branch model of EI has a category called Managing Emotions:
“Managing emotions – the ability to regulate emotions in both ourselves and in others. Therefore, the emotionally intelligent person can harness emotions, even negative ones, and manage them to achieve intended goals.”
This is exactly what Sonder did, purely out of instinct and not thinking he was doing anything special. He was simply displaying an innate “adaptive behavior” by perceiving emotions, understanding emotions, and managing emotions in a social context. I suppose a parallel to a different type of intelligence would be a math genius who solves some complicated equation and humbly says, “I was just following it to its logical conclusion” while the rest of us look on, dumbfounded. Sonder probably did not even think of his actions as special, he just did what came naturally…to him.
Footnote: The article points out that once Sonder defused the situation, a female bystander came over – suddenly emboldened – and yelled at the man half of the couple to get off the train. But according to the witnesses on the train, it was the woman who started punching and hitting the man. Here’s a quote from the bystander who videotaped the whole thing: ‘Punching him in the face, kicking, cursing. Soon as she saw the dude, she started fighting him. Then he kicks back.’ So why would the “helpful” woman tell the man to get off the train? Surely it was the violent woman who should have been asked to leave. With the important caveat that we don’t know the background of these individuals, I can’t help but wonder if there is some level of gender bias there; the cultural assumption that a man can’t be a victim of domestic abuse. Just a thought.