Moral Intuition

Consider the essential moral question, Is what I am about to do in keeping with my values, ethics or sense of meaning?

I’ve argued that the answer to this query comes to us first as a felt sense of “rightness” or “wrongness,” and only afterward do we explain to ourselves why this might be so. In Social Intelligence I described the mid-brain circuits of the “low road,” which manages such spontaneous, automatic responses to life. These neural systems are thickly connected to the brain’s emotional centers–-and the gut–but not to the thinking brain, the neocortex. Our first moral response comes as a feeling, not a thought.»

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Civility at Work

“How do you handle someone who is being obnoxious?”

That was a question put to me recently when I talked to a group having their annual Civility Awareness day at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center at Worcester.

We explored how best to encourage civility – which goes beyond mere politeness. The UMass credo on civility offers these tips:

  • “Conduct yourself with integrity, courtesy, and respect toward fellow members of our community.”
  • “Hold individuals accountable for their actions.”
  • “Promote an environment where individuals feel safe and supported.”

These rules for civility in a workplace are heartening; I’m pleased that an organization has focused on how to upgrade the quality of interactions among everyone who works there, as well as with patients.»

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Three Kinds of Empathy: Cognitive, Emotional, Compassionate

Being cool in crisis seems essential for our being able to think clearly. But what if keeping cool makes you too cold to care? In other words, must we sacrifice empathy to stay calm? That’s the dilemma facing those who are preparing top teams to handle the next Katrina-like catastrophe we might face. Which gets me to Paul Ekman, a world expert on emotions and our ability to read and respond to them in others. Paul and I had a long conversation recently, in which he described three very different ways to sense another person’s feelings.

The first is “cognitive empathy,” simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking.»

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Wired to Connect

As every author knows, books never really end – you just stop writing them at some point.  This is especially true for books like mine, which take a science journalist’s approach to major new fields of discovery. The research and its applications that I wrote about in <em>Emotional Intelligence</em>, <em>Social Intelligence</em> and my other books has continued. My own thinking evolves along with the new findings.

That has been a frustration for me: I’ve wanted a way to share with my readers some of my own continuing interests in these areas of science, with their rich implications for our lives. This website lets me do that, to some extent.»

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Making Sense of Our Lives

When you were young, which of these did you feel more often:

  • No matter what I do, my parents love me.
  • I can’t seem to please my parents, no matter what I do.
  • My parents don’t really notice me.

The answers to such questions reveal more than about our childhood: they also tend to predict how we act in our closest relationships as adults.

Our childhood shapes our brain in many ways – and so determines our most basic ways of reacting to others — for better and for worse. If we felt well-loved in childhood, we tend to be secure in our relationships – but if not, then we’re more prone to chronic problems.»

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From the Basement to the Balcony: Your Brain in an Emergency

I spoke recently with a psychologist who advises teams handling emergencies, including catastrophes like hurricanes. It occurred to me that a basic bit of neuroscience should adds a crucial piece in preparing for catastrophe, especially for those coordinating the response, as well as those on the front lines.

The plans for emergency, he pointed out, have to take into account the need to “go to the balcony”—that is, see the whole situation, and respond from a perspective that takes everything into account. The perennial challenge, though, is that in the press of the moment, people instead to often “go to the basement,” getting trapped in poor and inflexible responses to just one face of the emergency.»

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SEND: Cooling the Flame

Poor Michael Brown. During the darkest days of the Hurricane Katrina debacle, Brown, then director of FEMA, the agency that so badly bungled the rescue efforts, sent this email: “Are you proud of me? Can I quit now? Can I go home?”

Emails can come back to haunt us – any of us. Few among us have mastered this medium, and only slowly are we realizing its dangers.

From the earliest days of email people “flamed”, sending off irritating or otherwise annoying messages. One explanation for the failure to inhibit our more unruly impulses online is a mismatch between the screen we stare at as we email, and the cues the social circuits of the brain use to navigate us through an interaction effectively: on email there is no tone of voice, no facial expression.»

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The Trouble with IQ

I’ve just spoken to a friend who tells me that the tech company he works for, one of the world’s most well-known brand names, uses IQ or its surrogates – SAT, GMAT, GPA scores and the like – as critical requirement for employment – even if they were scores from many years ago. Basically, they are trying to ensure that their employees are the smartest people around.

But are the smartest the best in any given job? Not necessarily. Take two friends of mine. One, the most successful kid in my high school class, ended up as a CEO in the cable industry and retired after selling his company.»

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Flame First, Think Later: New Clues to E-mail Misbehavior

Jett Lucas, a 14-year-old friend, tells me the kids in his middle school send one other a steady stream of instant messages through the day. But there’s a problem. “Kids will say things to each other in their messages that are too embarrassing to say in person,” Jett tells me. “Then when they actually meet up, they are too shy to bring up what they said in the message. It makes things tense.”

Jett’s complaint seems to be part of a larger pattern plaguing the world of virtual communications, a problem recognized since the earliest days of the Internet: flaming, or sending a message that is taken as offensive, embarrassing or downright rude.»

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Emotional Contagion and Customer Satisfaction

“I had an accountant who used to make me crazy,” a friend tells me. “So I switched to one who always makes me feel fine, no matter what we’re talking about.”

That we gravitate to people who we enjoy being with is obvious. When it comes to the business world, cranky store clerks drive away business, just as that off-putting accountant drove away my friend. But this dynamic for keeping customers and clients satisfied seems to be ignored time and again by businesses. Thus the need to keep finding new ways to make the same old case for hiring for, or developing, interpersonal intelligence skills in those who are at the front lines of customer or client service.»

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