Dr. Daniel Goleman is a psychologist known for introducing the concept of emotional intelligence. His talk focuses on the idea of compassion and the human tendencies both towards and against it. We’ve got a default tendency to empathize due to “mirror neurons”, parts of the brain being studied by social neuroscientists. But we’re capable of ignoring these tendencies due to distraction with our other concerns.
Goleman talks about an experiment conducted at a seminary, where half of the students were asked to prepare a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan and the other half were given another biblical passage. Then students had to go to another building to deliver the sermon and passed a man groaning in pain. Would those contemplating a parable about compassion be more likely to stop and help? Nope. No correlation. But there is a correlation to how busy or hurried the students were – those not in a hurry stopped and helped.
He tells us about the world of dating – the mistake many people make in speed dating is talking about themselves. He tells us about a woman who judges men by how long it takes them to ask a question with the word, “you” in it.
There’s little correlation between intelligence and compassion. His brother studies terror, and had the opportuity to meet the Santa Cruz Strangler. The man terrified him, not just because he was almost seven feet tall, but because he had a 160IQ and no evidence of empathy. Asking him about these brutal and intimate murders, he asked, “How could you do this?” The man answered, “If I’d felt their distress, I couldn’t have done it. I had to turn that part of me off.”
Goleman wonders if we can become compassionate consumers by becoming more aware of the consequences on other humans of the objects we purchase. He gives the example of cotton t-shirt – cotton is hard to dye, and 60% of dye runs off the t-shirts – if that dye enters the water supply, it can radcically increase the chances of leukemia in a community. Companies like Bennetton are working to recover the dye and not poison the communities where the shirts are made. Goleman speculates that, soon, we’ll be able to get the full backstory on products we buy in stores and make decisions based on this data as well as on fashion.
Finally, Goleman tells us a story about “waking from his urban trance” and noticing a man passed out in a city street. He started to help the man, and immediately discovered six other people helping him. Once the barrier of habit – ignoring the homeless and distressed in urban areas – was broken, people immediately acted on their natural compassion.