Can emotional intelligence and empathy be transformed into tools of undue influence by manipulators? Emotional intelligence became a buzz phrase 20 years ago, when Daniel Goleman published his best-seller on the subject. He was looking at the benefits of sensitivity to the emotions of others, and claimed that emotional intelligence was more important that general intelligence in business and social interactions. Since then, emotional intelligence has been accepted as an important idea.

However, manipulation also relies upon a sure reading of emotions by a predator. In his book Zero Degrees of Empathy, Simon Baron-Cohen explains that psychopaths have little “affective empathy” –they feel very little – but a high level of “cognitive empathy” – understanding the feelings of others. Baron-Cohen’s Empathy Quotient test is available online if you want to check out your own empathy level.

The problem with texts that explain empathy and emotional intelligence is that they will be used by predators to enhance their skills. For instance, Dale Carnegie’s famous text, How to Win Friends and Influence People, explains how friendly, caring people approach others. As such, it is not only a way to increase friendly behavior, but also a training manual for predators.

We are urged to develop empathy in an avalanche of literature over the last couple of decades, but these exhortations do not take account of the unconscious nature of true empathy. The sort of empathy we are talking about is an automatic reaction.

emotional intelligenceIt is theorized that some people are born with a surfeit of “mirror” neurons that mimic the emotional responses of others; psychopaths, it is inferred, have few or no mirror neurons. They understand the emotions of others, but they do not share them.

In Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom argues that we must go beyond our knee-jerk reactions and, as his title says, develop “rational compassion”. The parent who feels too much empathy may allow a child to leave those greens uneaten, watch TV all night, and avoid lessons. The surgeon who feels too much empathy may shake too much to make the first cut.

As Paul Bloom says:

“Empathy is related to compassion and concern, and sometimes the terms are used synonymously. But compassion and concern are more diffuse than empathy. It is weird to talk about having empathy for the millions of victims of malaria, say, but perfectly normal to say that you are concerned about them or feel compassion for them. Also, compassion and concern don’t require mirroring of others’ feelings. If someone works to help the victims of torture and does so with energy and good cheer, it doesn’t seem right to say that as they do this, they are empathizing with the individuals they are helping. Better to say they feel compassion for them.”

Where empathy is simply believing that you feel what another person feels, it can be redirected by a manipulator. Take for example the story used to ignite the first Iraq War: advertising agency Hill and Knowlton prepared the 15-year-old daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to testify to a Congressional hearing that she was present when Iraqi troops broke into the premature baby unit of a hospital in Kuwait City and tipped babies from their incubators.

This was a horrifying story, and it galvanized the western world into action: but it was only a story. Initially, even Amnesty International supported it, but with further examination, the witness changed her testimony to say that one baby had been briefly removed from an incubator. Propagandists know how to manipulate empathy.

To overcome this effect, we need to consider our feelings rather than simply acting on them. We will have better use for our emotional intelligence and our empathy if we do.

As with intuition, empathy and emotional intelligence are real assets, but only when they are linked with good critical thinking skills and healthy skepticism.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s book? Do you have a story about emotional intelligence that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!