Emotions aren’t dark, people are

A while ago the printing press was invented. It was all set to wow the world with its newness. Those with the knowledge made lots of money from it, and soon it became a thing of the masses. What no-one knew at the time was if it was going to be used for good or for evil. Sure people knew about books, and that you could write newspapers, but what else would they write about? This tool, of communication, it became this brilliant way of spreading a message. And at some point along the way, someone decided they’d use this method of communication to spread messages which were bad, which were manipulative, and which were wrong in many respects. This printing press, it had a dark side.

There was this other invention in the 19th century which was again set to revolutionise the way people communicated with one another. The telephone had given people a way to suddenly talk to people anywhere in the world. At first, people were sceptical about it – who would you possibly call? And eventually, this communication tool, was too used for nefarious and dark purposes. Le Sigh.

The 19th century also saw another invention take shape in the form of the automobile. Yes, what we commonly know as cars. At first it was the resolve of the few. These few drove these contraptions and made others jealous they owned such things. Some even had servants driving them for them and taking them to soirees and banquets. Would it surprise you to learn that even this amazing transportation tool became a tool of evil? It too had a dark side that no-one expected? It could kill. It could maim. It could disfigure. A truly horrible invention.

I’m sorry, am I patronising you?

In a recent article, Adam Grant would have us believe the theory known as emotional intelligence has a dark side. He describes research that points to people learning how to be emotionally intelligent in order to manipulate others. Or said another way – people who want to exert power over others, learn how to do something enough so that they can get their way. People have been learning how to manipulate others since time began. And best of all, they’ve used whatever tool has been available to them.

Emotional intelligence isn’t a bad or good tool. It’s just a theory. It helps us to understand human dynamics in a way that most people can benefit from. Can people use it for their own dark purposes? Of course they can. That’s because people have their own desires and ambitions they are trying to achieve.

You can liken this to committing emotional fraud. I think you’re trying to help me out, and that you’re making positive actions towards me, whereas in actual fact you’re trying to harm me in some way and make me worse off.

If you choose to use it for a dark purpose, that’s because you’re what my kids would call a bad person. The research that’s being done to understand how people are using EI as a manipulative tool is non-important research. It tells us nothing about human behaviour we don’t already know. People actively choose whether they do good or bad deeds. Learning how to use EI for negative purposes is no different than learning how to use the internet to send spam email or worse.

There is plenty of good research in the field of EI which helps us to better understand what happens to us when emotions are felt or expressed. We are now understanding the physiological changes the body goes through when different emotions are felt. We’ve got a clear idea of how emotions help prepare the body and mind for certain actions. We understand how to help someone develop their EI in order that they can have better and more positive relationships. That’s where the interesting research is happening, and that’s where we should be looking to continue the debate.

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

4 thoughts on “Emotions aren’t dark, people are”

  1. Agree. Sometimes I feel a lot of this behaviour research is telling us what we already instinctively know!

  2. Well said Sukh.

    I learnt of how EI is a necessary ingredient for Leaders in my Strategic Leadership class back then in Hull Uni. I wondered how praises and encomiums were showered on Daniel Goleman’s EI. Surprisingly, the critiques were few and I concluded that the good side of EI must far outweigh its dark side.

    This is what you have explained in this blog and in finer details.

    Well done!

  3. Right. I think I’ve got my thoughts properly marshalled now to comment. I agree that pretty much anything we can come up with, from printing presses to emotional intelligence can be used for good or bad ends and by good or bad people. However, I don’t think we’re anywhere near done understanding the triggers in human nature that sees someone using their emotional intelligence manipulatively in the same way that we’re not simply shrugging our shoulders and accepting that an otherwise useful internet is used by some people to flood us with spam.
    As an example, understanding and research into how EI may have been a factor in the development of an organisational culture that allowed LIBOR rigging to take place is vitally important to people who want to use research into positive applications of EI to ensure that organisational cultures are propagated that minimise the chances of such a thing happening again.
    The usefulness of research lies in a balanced and nuanced understanding of both negative and positive actions, inputs, outcomes etc. Research that serves merely to confirm our own opinions, hypotheses and prejudices is less useful.

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