Alison Bacon: The Light and Dark of Emotional Intelligence at TEDxPlymouthUniversity (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Psychologist Alison Bacon’s TEDx Talk: The Light and Dark of Emotional Intelligence at TEDxPlymouthUniversity conference. This event occurred on February 1, 2018. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.

Alison Bacon – ‎Lecturer In Psychology at ‎University of Plymouth

When we put on the TV or listen to the radio to get some news, so often these days we’re confronted with something like this: war, terror, fighting, international disputes, conflict. Even in our own lives: we argue with our partners, we bicker with our kids, we fall out with our coworkers.

So what if we could learn a way to handle conflict that was a little bit kinder to everybody concerned, that had more likelihood of leading to a positive outcome for everyone concerned? So let’s think about actually what happens when we experience a conflict.

When we experience conflict, we experience stress. We may not recognize it as such, openly or consciously, but our body certainly knows, and a physiological response kicks in, which releases hormones – cortisol or what have you – in order to prepare the body for some kind of protective response.

Now, for some people, that is to fight, and it can be literally fighting back physically, or maybe verbally, in the words they use. For other people, the response is to fly, is flight, so to literally run away, or to metaphorically run away in some way, by ignoring the situation, refusing to engage in it, just burying their head in the sand.

For other people, the dilemma and the fear are such that they totally freeze like a rabbit in the headlights and really can’t deal with the situation at all. But all of those responses, although they may seem very instinctive, don’t always lead to very good outcomes and can sometimes perpetuate the conflict even further.

So, what I’m going to propose to you tonight is that rather than responding to a conflict like that, we learn a little bit more about emotional intelligence.

So, what is emotional intelligence? Well, academically speaking, there’s been quite a lot of conceptualizations, but they all have several things in common. And in a very small nutshell, emotional intelligence is about identifying and understanding emotion, firstly in ourselves, so how we are actually feeling at any given moment.

And you might be thinking, “Well, I know how I feel.” But do you, really? In the chaos of every day, the conflicted deadlines, the rushing about, it’s so easy to lose touch with what we really feel. And when we’ve learned to authentically identify what we’re really feeling and how it is influenced by the situation we’re in, then we can learn to think about and control how we respond, so we can learn to regulate those emotions and respond how we choose to, rather than just instinctively.

But emotional intelligence isn’t just about us. It’s about other people as well, because when we start to really understand emotion, we can start to think about how that applies to the other person in the situation as well. How might they be feeling? What might be going on for them that is making them to behave the way they are? And once we start to have understanding of that, then we can learn to regulate not only our own behavioral responses, but we can learn to regulate and manage the situation, and facilitate a place whereby the other people can respond in perhaps a more emotionally intelligent manner as well.

Now, emotional intelligence is a great thing for us to have conflict aside. We have a whole load of evidence in psychology of how people with high emotional intelligence are more optimistic and happier than people with lower emotional intelligence. Their health is better. Now, not surprisingly, their mental health is better, they report less anxiety and less depression, but also their physical, somatic health is better than people with lower emotional intelligence.

High emotionally intelligent people perform well in their jobs. They’re happier in their jobs, they work well with their colleagues, and their job performance is better than low emotionally intelligent people across a whole load of organizational criteria. They do better academically as well. In fact, we have evidence to suggest that kids in school who’ve got a relatively low IQ, but high emotional intelligence, can actually end up outperforming kids with much higher IQs. So, emotional intelligence can actually have a compensator effect for parts of us that are perhaps a little bit weaker.

So we have all this great evidence for really good real-life outcomes for people with high emotional intelligence. Now, most of that evidence has been gathered from psychological studies carried out using questionnaires. But we’ve been starting to wonder about how good it would be to get some actual behavioral evidence of some of these effects, some behavioral evidence that people with high emotional intelligence are actually better and quicker at sussing out emotional situations and understanding them than people with lower emotional intelligence.

And recently, I’ve been doing some work on this with some of my colleagues here at Plymouth University, some of whom are sitting in the audience over there. And what we’ve been doing for this research is using virtual reality. It’s a quite new technology.

So, we’ve been putting our participants in a virtual reality headset a bit like this. I don’t know if anybody here has ever been or used our virtual reality headset, but if you haven’t, I can tell you that it completely immerses you in an alternative 3D world, whatever world or environment we program that headset to put you in. And if you have trouble imagining what that’s like, just think about walking through some kind of environment you’re familiar with, say, your own home. So, you walk through that space and you can see stuff around you, doors and chairs and tables and windows and what have you, and you can navigate your way through that 3D space and interact with objects.

Well, 3D immersive virtual reality is just like that, it’s like actually being in that environment and interacting with it. So, what we’ve done in this study is we’ve put people into an environment a bit like this, so a city street at night. Now, it’s got all the usual things you’d expect to see on a city street at night. It’s got cars and lights and shops and a pavement with people walking up and down. And in this study, what we’ve been doing is every now and again, one of these people out on the street will walk up, these avatars will walk up to the person taking part, who of course feels like they’re actually really there, and they’ll either be really pleasant or friendly in their approach, so, “Hey! How are you? Really great to see you. You’re looking well,” or another avatar might come up and be really aggressive and unfriendly, “Oh, what are you doing here? I hate people like you.”

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