Salovey: An ‘emotional’ student

Every Friday morning, nearly without fail, Dean — soon-to-be Provost — Peter Salovey puts away his administrative to-do list. He files away reports on academic budgets and faculty appointments, closes his e-mail inbox and walks a little ways up Science Hill, where, at his lab’s weekly meeting, he can be a psychologist again.

“It’s a break from my administrative responsibilities,” he said. “[It’s] a very important part of my week.”

Psychology became a passion of his soon after Salovey picked up a copy of Elliot Aronson’s “The Social Animal” the summer between his senior year of high school and freshman year of college at Stanford University, where he ended up majoring in psychology and sociology. The book has stayed with Salovey so long that he drew upon it for advice as recently as this year, when he was preparing his address to the class of 2012.

“It was about things like … altruism and attitude change and prejudice,” he said. “I just thought, ‘You can make a living studying these things?!’ This is terrific!”

Salovey has since made a career of ‘the social animal’ — and indeed a name for himself as one of the world’s premier authorities on social psychology.

Are emotions ‘good’ for us?

The answer is more nuanced than a simple yes or no.

Emotions are generally an evolutionarily adaptive behavior, Salovey said. For instance, they allow us to maneuver our social environments, build relationships and determine bodily needs. But there are two sides to the story — in fact, the same emotion can be both adaptive and maladaptive, depending on the context in which it is experienced, he said.

For instance, anxiety can either pique our focus and allow us to perform better, or derail and overwhelm us, obstructing our goals, he said.

“This contrasts with a historic view that used to view emotions as kind of vestigial … kind of like wisdom teeth,” he said. “The view was that they got in the way of rational thinking, that on the one hand, you could be thinking clearly or that you could be passionate about something, [but] that passion and reason could not coexist.”

Indeed, in the world of Salovey’s research, passion and reason do co-exist — and even resemble each other.

Salovey and his team are famed for offering to social psychology the ability-based model of emotional intelligence, which frames EI as a quantifiable mental capacity that, like IQ, is partially heritable and partially modifiable. The view challenges the competing theory — which is fast losing ground — that emotional intelligence functions as a personality trait, said Marc Brackett, an associate research scientist in psychology and a member of Salovey’s lab.

“We think that’s a total misconception,” he said.

Research from Salovey’s lab shows that EI is far from fixed or immutable. For instance, Salovey said, an EI test they created, the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, has been used to show that EI generally rises throughout the lifespan.

The test presents a series of tasks, designed to assess competency in the areas of perceiving, using, understanding and managing emotions, such as asking participants to identify emotions depicted in photographs of facial expressions. Consistent with the model’s claim of EI as a type of intelligence, the test is modeled on ability-based IQ tests.

EI can be taught in the classroom, too. Brackett said the group has designed a curriculum for middle- and elementary-school children that incorporates instruction about emotional literacy into every-day subjects like English and science through an emphasis on activities such as role-playing, empathizing with characters in literature and play-acting.

The program, which has thus far been implemented in hundreds of schools around the country and abroad, has been linked to positive outcomes in academic performance, social behavior and mental health—and shown to increase performance in these outcomes over time, Salovey said. The lab is currently working on testing the curriculum in 110 schools in the Bronx and Queens regions, Brackett said.

Despite the host of research correlating EI with positive social outcomes, the concept is still fundamentally contested in some psychological circles.

“There are still plenty of people who would argue that it’s still an elusive construct,” he said, adding that some deem it unable to be measured while others dismiss it as not being “real.”

Interestingly, unlike many other psychological constructs, people usually cannot correctly assess their own level of emotional intelligence, Brackett said. In fact, those who have the highest perceived emotional literacy often have the poorest outcomes in social situation assessments — a counter-intuitive observation that speaks of the lack of education or feedback people receive about their emotional competency in every day life, he said.

Brackett said EI correlates most often with personality traits such as openness to experience and extroversion, and with general wellbeing.

Emotions get under the skin

Emotions don’t just affect social indicators: they affect physical ones, too.

In an experiment conducted by the Salovey lab, participants — required to be ill — were asked to recall both positive and negative events in their lives. Those who recalled negative events, which induced a negative mood, were more likely to notice their symptoms, to experience them more and were much more pessimistic about their recovery, than those who recalled positive events, Salovey said. The experiment showed that the psychological and biological are, in many ways, inextricable, he said.

The finding supports a growing — but still inconclusive — body of research linking favorable moods, like optimism, to optimum immune system function.

Indeed, health — specifically, the promotion of health protective behaviors — is another of Dean Salovey’s major research interests, one that launched him into celebrity after he devised the “message framing” approach to studying health behaviors in the late 90s, said Amy Latimer, who was a post-doc in his lab until 2006. The approach assumes that public health advertisements, such as commercials, billboards and posters in a doctor’s office, elicit certain emotional responses that can either “facilitate or block the message,” depending on how they are framed, she said.

The lab uses the tools and rules of social psychology to make health advertisements and messages more persuasive. Currently, Salovey joked, most have no effect.

“There’s an old joke about advertising,” he said with a grin. “Half of all advertising works, half of all advertising doesn’t work. The problem is nobody knows which half is which.”

Health advertisements the lab studies fall under two general categories: they can be prevention-focused, meaning they emphasize a good behavior for its ability to prevent disease, or they can be promotion-focused, highlighting the behavior for its in-built merits. Quitting smoking, for instance, can be advertised to prevent lung cancer, from a prevention standpoint – or to give you more energy, from a promotion standpoint, he said.

The lab found that, when a behavior has very little costs or risks associated with it, a “promotion-oriented” message works better. Conversely, an early detection behavior that has psychological risks associated with it is better couched in the “prevention” rhetoric.

Latimer said that the puzzle may be a little more complicated than that: rather than depending on the class of health behavior, whether promotion-focused or prevention-focused, the success of a health message may be contingent on the individual’s own assessment of the behavior, or his or her personal characteristics. The next step, then, is to consider which personality characteristics predict similar responses to similar types of messages, she said.

Currently, a group at the Salovey lab is working on a project based in Fair Haven that aims to encourage its citizens to do more physical exercise and eat more fruits and vegetables, in light of the low density of healthy-food options in the area, she said.

“It’s a new spin on creating behavior change,” she said.

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