Gottman, conversations… meetings?

Probably my last entry in the psychology stream for a while, though there are a few more things on education I’d like to read. I was drawn to Suzette Haden Elgin‘s verbal self-defense because I like the idea that conversations between people can be analyzed and understood somehow, even bad ones, especially bad ones. John Gottman takes this type of analysis to another level. His starting point is analyzing conversations empirically, coding expressions of key emotions, measuring the numbers of times they come up, and comparing “good” interactions to bad ones, and analyzing couples and their marriages in terms of these interactions. Using this scientific approach, Gottman has created a model that can predict whether a couple will be together or apart, happy or unhappy, 4 years from now, based on a 30-minute conversation, with around 90% accuracy. So can the good interacters be emulated? Not really. They are the ones who show genuine affection, even when they disagree. And Gottman found that people can’t fake emotions. He could tell people to “show genuine affection”, but it just wouldn’t work. The Gottmans’ analysis (they work on theraputic interventions as a married couple) does have some theraputic implications – try to keep criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling out of the conversations (especially contempt). Try to start off “softly” (because conversations that start badly rarely get better). Accept influence from your partner. But the therapies they recommend to make these things happen are, I believe, a less solid footing than their descriptive analyses of conversations. They have perscriptions for trying to make partners like each other more, team-building and friend-building and getting-to-know-you type exercises. One critique I read suggested that there’s something implicit in their work that you can get married, and stay married, to pretty much anybody and if you can’t make it work, you should feel bad, it’s a set of skills. But how do you apply skills when you don’t want to, or apply skills to make yourself want something you don’t. So, I think there is interesting material in their descriptions, but their prescriptions are trickier.

I also read Daniel Goleman’s “Social Intelligence”. I didn’t get much out of “Emotional Intelligence”. It seemed to me to be providing a categorization of emotional “intelligences” and then not taking the categories very far. I’m all for defining concepts before using them, but defining concepts and then not using them is a different matter. In “Social Intelligence” Goleman does a bit more than present categories – he presents research about how we convey emotions to one another and pick them up from each other, and the physiological consequences of these. I found it interesting, and I wondered what manipulations advertising and propaganda have been subjecting us to based on these sorts of insights (actually I needn’t wonder, some of these are described in the book). He ends with some hints toward an ethical framework, and how it is not immoral to use emotional or social intelligence in the world, especially if it is in the interests of others, which if it’s authentic intelligence (that is aware of other’s emotions and one’s own) it usually is.

I end this trilogy with a report on “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge. This book is about “neuroplasticity”, how the brain physically changes in response to changes in the environment and what that can mean – recovery from all kinds of brain (and other) diseases, how the brain can compensate for such diseases or injuries by accessing other parts of itself, how we can retrain our brains to get over emotional or mental problems or disabilities. It’s all based on cases and active research that is ongoing, and it seems (to my untrained eye) like it’s solidly documented and presented. I was fascinated, though I did get the feeling throughout (and Doidge’s description of an unfortunate episode one of the researcher-protagonists of the book went through with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) that so much of this was learned by doing terrible things to monkeys. That kind of thing was a part of why I studied physics instead of biology, even though I found (and still find) the latter very interesting. Doidge’s chapter on internet porn and how it retrains the brain was insightful and interesting. I think it and a book by David Loftus called “Watching Sex” are useful elements in the discussion of how our society is becoming “pornified” and what the effects will be (“Pornified” is the title of another book, one I have yet to read). Other chapters on compulsions and on psychoanalysis and their effects on the brain and possible treatments for them were also very interesting.

Now, if you’ve gotten this far you might be hoping there are some political implications in all this? Something other than bland prescriptions that we should talk nice and be emotionally intelligent, perhaps in meetings? Well, kind of. I think that becoming aware of this dimension of life has been useful to me. In fact, I wish I had become aware of it earlier. I’m not sure if my approach of filtering the emotional and irrational aspects out of political analysis was a reaction to our culture’s tendency to dismiss political analysis, reflection, or action in psychological terms (as if finding a psychological explanation for something was sufficient to dismiss it, but leave that aside). But as I have become aware of it through a lot of these readings and explorations, I have realized that it has long been integrated with politics and used for political ends. Wilhelm Reich argued as much in his “Mass Psychology of Fascism”, which I’ve talked about here, I think. Using it for decent political ends requires a different approach, but I think people like Alfie Kohn, Alice Miller, and Suzette Elgin point to some of that approach (and others, like Coloroso, try to do so, in spite of their blind spots – see the previous blog entry for details).

The next few blogs will probably be a slow return to proper political analysis – unless I take another diversionary turn into the educational literature (I’ve been eyeing “The Myth of Ability” and “The End of Ignorance”, books by a Toronto mathematician).

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.

4 thoughts on “Gottman, conversations… meetings?”

  1. more on psychology
    You can’t be done with psychology if you haven’t read Commonsense Rebellion bu Bruce Levine…

    And these captchas suck. please assure me you weren’t the one who introduced it to ZBlogs 😉

    1. Yes!
      I picked up Levine and beside it on the shelf was “Against Therapy” by another author… I’ll do the anti-psychology blog post shortly! Thanks Anonymous! But why do you hate the captchas?


      1. been a while
        well, i got an account on ZBlogs to avoid all that captcha only to be struck with it again. now any mistake immediately means you’re post is screened. Likewise if you included a link it flags you as spam. These are the most stringent I’ve encountered on the internet! Gives too much power to the webmaster, imho, in what is after all a radical anti-authoritarian gathering.

        hurry up with that anti-psychology review will you. Is that ‘Against Therapy’ bu Masson? On reflection, I’m skipping that for now because I do want to get therapy from Levine ;).

        The Great Porn Debate. Did you see Robert Jensen’s Getting Off—just released from South End Press? If you can, contrast it with Scott Tucker’s essay, Gender, Fucking and Utopia. Scott Tucker’s critique Stoltenberg, who came from the same Andrea Dworkin inspired milieu that brought forth Jensen, is almost cruel in its attack. Jensen though self-consciously restricts his analysis to ‘hardcore’ pornography watched by ‘straight’ men (which provides the overwhelming majority of the revenue for the industry). From that he reaches similar conclusions to Stoltenberg. Of course it helps Jensen that the mainstream of porn is now even more degrading than when Stoltenberg and Tucker were arguing in the early ’90s. I’ll have to see how much of Tucker’s critique is solely rooted in gay perspective but I don’t see Jensen bridging the pro-porn, anti-porn factions. If you were building one of those overarching movements how would you fit both in (or which one would you choose)?

        By the way, does it matter gay porn is often ‘misappropriated’ like this?

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