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summer/fall 2007 no. 9


Compassionate Capitalism?

A review of Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman; 2006, Bantam.

by Zachary P. Norwood


The control of the economic system by the market is of overwhelming consequence to the whole organization of society: it means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system.

— Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation


My flat looks out over the largest import/export operation in New Zealand: Ports of Auckland. Responsible for $20 billion worth of merchandise annually, and pushing 4.6 million tons of products in 2006, Ports of Auckland symbolizes a small fraction of an unimaginably vast global market. At night, the emergency lights of port vehicles flash incessantly, and the whole operation comes to life. I’m often transfixed with a mixture of awe and disgust at this marvel of man, this perpetual motion machine of diesel-powered ships and cranes, straddle carriers and semi trucks, all following a predetermined circuit with methodical, ant-like efficiency.

What’s the point of it all, I wonder. What indeed? This endless, Sisyphean toil — is it really just so I can have my favorite Belgian ale, organic Australian muesli, and canned tomatoes from Italy?; so my Japanese neighbor can get his special salted plums and anime DVDs?; so “poor students” can buy the latest electronic gadgets and clothing manufactured in China? And for what? so we can indulge in Epicurean delights, alone, whilst sitting in front of our computers, simulating social emotions and relations in virtual landscapes?

Musing along such lines guiltily reminds me of Erich Fromm’s portentous 1976 release, To Have or to Be, a hauntingly accurate portrayal of the relationship between unconscious consumerism and social psychology. He argued then that runaway-capitalism “makes leaders value personal success more highly than social responsibility; at the same time, the general public is also so selfishly concerned with their private affairs that they pay little attention to all that transcends the personal realm.” Indeed, if contemporary values are principally entrepreneurial, if “making it” signifies successful marketing of products, then it’s no leap of the imagination to link today’s psychological malaise with economics. Social psychology and economics are far from nonoverlapping magisteria.

Fast forward to 2007, and Fromm’s predictions seem not only to have come true, but coupled with today’s technological advances — the internet, laptops, cell phones, and portable music devices — they seem to have intensified a thousand fold, precipitating large-scale, unforeseen social consequences.

These consequences are at the heart of Daniel Goleman’s timely new book, Social Intelligence. Innocently beginning as an exposé of “social neuroscience” — the new science of human ecology — Goleman’s book ends as a powerful, scientifically grounded argument for socioeconomic reform, a call for reinstating the primacy of human nature and utility over unconscious consumerism. In this review, I will track this unexpected evolution from cool scientific observation to flaming social consequence, beginning with a cursory overview of social neuroscience and ending with an ambitious proposal, a new agenda for geopolitical action.

Similar to sociobiology, a framework introduced by E. O. Wilson in 1975, social neuroscience examines the interplay between universal, adapted physiology and social organization, emphasizing but not restricted to human ecology. In the past, this was the domain of social psychology, but with the advent of neuroimaging technology, we can now explore the inner workings of the mind while it processes social information, such as ideas about what others are thinking and doing.

It has been shown, for example, that a special type of neurons only found in mammals, “spindle cells,” are likely responsible for integrating different sensory modalities to facilitate decision-making and social awareness (9). Another (not terribly surprising) example is the discovery that men, compared to women, have higher levels of neurochemicals correlated with sexual desire, and lower levels of chemicals correlated with attachment (200).

The implications of these findings are immense. Are spindle cells more or less stimulated by environmental conditions, generating more or less empathically inclined individuals? If genes code for them, are different densities heritable? If there are sexual asymmetries with things such as erotic desire, should we rethink how we deal with infidelity, or perhaps broaden our marital laws to include polyamory and the so-called “dedicated triad”? Perhaps living with two sexual partners is a more stable arrangement over time than living with one, or it may be doomed to failure from the start. Who knows? But now we at least have the capacity to find out.

Fundamental to social neuroscience, if one could not tell already by the above examples—the neural correlates of “empathy” and “desire” — is the new science of human emotion. Pre-neuroscientific models of emotion were tainted by metaphysical assumptions, many of which relegated emotion to a minor role. Now we know that emotion is demonstrably intertwined with basic cognition. What triggers an emotional response, however, is more difficult to explain. Goleman argues that emotion is fundamentally linked to the “social brain” (9), a network of discrete, interconnected brain regions, including such structures as the amygdala, insula, and orbitofrontal cortex (81). Each of these areas governs a specific aspect of emotion and cognition, yet only through their interdependent functioning do they produce behavioral outcomes (80).

Take empathy for example. When we perceive someone who appears frightened, we respond by mirroring their experience—we ourselves feel frightened in turn (39). According to the social brain model, any type of emotion entails an interpersonal circuit of emotional contagion, e.g., if someone irritates us, we share our irritation by making a snide remark; if we find someone attractive, we signal our attraction in the hopes they’ll reciprocate; if we perceive a painting or movie depicting a state of terror, we respond accordingly.

This type of emotional contagion, partially controlled by “mirror neurons,” occurs spontaneously after stimulus onset, setting off a chain reaction of neurochemical responses consonant with the stimuli type, be it potentially threatening or rewarding (41). Self-efficacy allows for a degree of control, but not beyond the human horizon. We can initiate the conditions for experiencing a certain type of emotion, but once these conditions are met, we don’t necessarily have control over the physiological reactions set off by a particular emotion.

Spontaneous emotional contagion, argues Goleman, is part of the “low road” appraisal mechanism of the brain, controlled primarily by “bottom-up,” subcortical activity (15). The cortical “high road,” on the other hand, allows for reappraising emotional responses, a “top-down” process of reinterpreting or suppressing stimuli vis-à-vis acquired knowledge and experience (76). Goleman admits that the high/low road distinction is not clear-cut, and runs the risk of oversimplification (321). “The social architecture of the brain intertwines the high and low roads,” writes Goleman. “[T]hese two systems work in parallel, both necessary rudders in the social world” (100). Nevertheless, the high/low distinction is a useful metaphor for describing very real neurological phenomena.

The high/low metaphor is also useful for framing “social intelligence,” which Goleman characterizes as a combination of “social awareness” and “social facility” (84). Social awareness involves empathetic attunement and accuracy, the ability not only to feel what another is feeling but to judge properly the nuances of their intentions (84). Social awareness also includes social cognition, or the developed understanding of social dynamics (84). Social facility, on the other hand, represents our capacity to implement social awareness. We may find ourselves fully cognizant of what another is feeling, yet be unable to facilitate this awareness.

As an example, imagine conversing with a friend, who suddenly becomes animated about her first passionate love experience. Being a veteran yourself, you understand exactly what she’s experiencing, but rather than empathize, you tell her it’s all a pathetic illusion and will soon dissipate, and that once the “passion wears off,” she’ll discover that her love object is really a tedious, insignificant nobody. This would be an example of social awareness (perhaps of a jaded variety) without facility. The more conscientious, “fruitful” response, suggests Goleman’s framework, would be acknowledging her emotions and then surreptitiously warning her of possible consequences.

Although social intelligence is governed by adapted physiology, Goleman is careful to avoid the pitfall of genetic determinism (151). At the individual level, we can apply the principles of social neuroscience to everyday life, cultivating social awareness and facility at home and work. At the community level, social intelligence can help guide new, empathically attuned socioeconomic policies, achieving a type of nuanced, biosocially informed neo-utilitarianism. If we know, for example, that population density decreases educational opportunity (317), or that excessive work-hours increases anxiety and in turn long-term health consequences (226), we can obviate these problems by developing social neuroscientifically informed public policies—in other words, social neuroscience is a vehicle for euthenics.

To be sure, one of the most important themes of Goleman’s book is how to restructure social institutions, such as hospitals and businesses, so they do not clash with human nature. Goleman argues that our “emerging understanding of the social brain and the effects of our personal connections on our biology also point to a range of ways we might reengineer social institutions for the better” (314). Today’s market-minded economy situates profit margins, competition, and efficiency over social well-being. “When people are treated as numbered units, interchangeable parts of no interest or value in themselves,” Goleman warns, “empathy is sacrificed in the name of efficiency and cost-effectiveness” (252). Indeed, market-mindedness alienates us from our work and colleagues, institutionalizing a type of “organized lovelessness,” as characterized by Aldous Huxley (252). A social neuroscientifically informed institution, in contrast, would avoid institutional “de-empathization” by treating workers as experientially robust human beings, rather than automated work units. Putting empathy first, in turn, would not only bolster morale, but also promote the best interest of the institution.

The new “patient-centered” movement in medical institutions serves as an example (254). According to a 1997 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, doctors who establish rapport with their patients are sued less often, and vice versa (254). This finding may extend to any institution, including academia. The pedantic ideal of disinterestedness may require social intelligence to offset the “interestedness” of human nature, the driving force of any type of undertaking, scientific or philosophic. Empathy therefore should not be taken as a weakness, an inevitable source of bias, but rather as a means of keeping channels of communication open so we are more receptive to criticism (30).

Keeping these ideas in mind, let us return to the dehumanizing effects of contemporary capitalism. If social neuroscience provides a means of humanizing institutions, perhaps it can also humanize capitalism. Alvin Weinberg, interviewed by Goleman, suggests just this:

The conventional view holds that capitalism is the only efficient way to allocate resources. But it lacks compassion.
I wonder whether the possibilities of our economic models are being exhausted — and whether the high level of global unemployment we’re seeing is actually structural and very deep, not a passing phenomenon. Perhaps there will always be a sizable — and probably growing — number of people who just can’t find good jobs. And then I wonder, how might we modify our system so that it’s not just efficient but compassionate?

Assuming, along with Goleman and Weinberg, that there is a link between economic models and everyday life, between the mantra of perpetual growth and ever-increasing social stratification and iniquity, then clearly we have a major problem on our hands. Is it not possible that, in the process of expanding our markets and increasing our populations and developments, without considering overall net affects on quality of life, that we have created a monster?

One cannot help but notice the entrenched relationship between mass consumerism and quality of life, between economic and social values. By all appearances, we have become a society of Nietzschean “last men,” living vicariously through entertainment television, movies, and online gaming. We are miserable yet placated, our anxieties perpetually palliated by technological gadgets. We have become vulgar utilitarians, seeking out false pleasures to offset the desperation of daily life.

And what’s worse, the masses will fight tooth and claw for their dwarfed existence, their shopping malls and cigarettes, binge drinking and mindnumbing sitcoms. Such trends are reported across Europe as well, creating what Gabor Steingart calls the “new European underclass,” a type of modern day lumpen-proletariat too stupid and stupefied to dissent. In his revisionist interpretation of H. G. Wells’ Time Machine, Niel Stephenson describes the new underclass majority as a hyper-Eloi culture governed by a book reading Morlock minority. The analogy is haunting yet ostensibly plausible (one need only imagine Karl Rove as the Master Morlock).

So what’s to be done? “Now that neuroscience can put numbers to that raw buzz of fellow feeling, quantifying its benefits,” writes Goleman, “we must pay attention to the biological impact of social life” (318). If our quality of life has declined in response to the pressures of a highly stratified, technology driven, mass-market oriented society, and if this quality is now quantifiable vis-à-vis social neuroscience, then for the first time in history we have the means of developing a genuine science of morality. This is of no small consequence. Many a war has issued from disagreements over how we should live, what model of civilization is best for humanity.

Samuel P. Huntington argued that the “clash of civilizations” will define our global future. Yet this framework gets things backwards: it places the burden of social reform on relative cultural differences, not collective human nature. Social neuroscience, on the other hand, cuts through the clash of civilizations to the core of the problem, to human psychology in general. It makes possible a scientifically founded “rights of man,” not a metaphysical “clash of civilizations.” Herein lies the true value of Goleman’s book. Despite its many shortcomings and oversimplifications, Social Intelligence contains the seeds for social reform.




Zachary P. Norwood is a first-year Ph.D. student at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He’s developing new methods for analyzing literary “meaning” from the standpoint of both cognitive and affective neuroscience. His book review of Brain Fiction appeared in Entelechy's issue no. 7.




Copyright © 2007  Entelechy: Mind & Culture. New Paltz, NY. All rights reserved.