This is an article about three things: (a) emotional intelligence, (b) a controversial American habit, and (c) a new review, grounded in neuroscience, showing why those first two items might not go together very well.
First, let’s start with emotional intelligence. In my free ebook, Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021, I use a two-part definition of the concept:
“Emotional intelligence is the practiced awareness of how emotions affect your communications and efforts, coupled with the use of strategies designed to leverage emotions to help you achieve goals.”
I like that definition, as it makes clear that emotional intelligence is both something you can work on and improve (hence the title of my ebook), and that there’s also a results-oriented reason for doing so.
Second, let’s talk about the increasingly popular American habit: frequent use of marijuana (cannabis). About 12 percent of Americans now say they use the drug regularly. That’s up from 7 percent in 2013 (which is itself a 71.4 percent increase), according to Gallup.
No judgment on my end. Use cannabis or don’t; it’s your call.
But, if people are going to tell me — as many readers do — that they’re very interested in improving their levels of emotional intelligence, it makes sense to weigh that goal against the habit.
This is item number three, so to speak: the apparent correlation between marijuana use and lower emotional intelligence.
Writing in the journal, Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology researchers Alyssa MacKenzie and Anita Cservenka of Oregon State University looked for existing studies that touched on links between the use of cannabis and emotion processing.
They identified 41 such studies and documented findings from them including:
- elevated hostility,
- lack of responsiveness to emotional stimuli,
- difficulties with accuracy and response time when identifying and differentiating between emotions (such as happiness or sadness), and
- a mixed outcome regarding anxiety, with both increased and decreased effects
Again, I’m not suggesting anyone should or should not use cannabis. There are negative outcomes associated with a lot of other habits, too. (People who drink alcohol habitually might want to think twice before suggesting that their habits are healthier).
Still, if you think about some of the strategies that emotionally intelligent people strive to adopt, it’s hard not to notice how these outcomes might not be helpful. For example, here are three key habits that emotionally intelligent people learn:
They practice tactical patience.
Let’s start with tactical patience. Emotionally intelligent people realize that if they react to things immediately, they’re more likely to do things out of emotion.
So, they wait a minute or an hour, or a week — whatever’s appropriate. And that allows them to do three things:
- Isolate negative emotional reactions.
- Compartmentalize their responses, dedicating the time that’s actually required.
- Take back some of the power they’d give up if they responded quickly and on someone else’s timetable.
There’s always room for at least some level of tactical patience, even when you think there might not be. Imagine for example that your top customer sends you an urgent text message on a Saturday afternoon.
You might understandably want to reply in a timely manner. But, would a response delivered in minutes rather than seconds be sufficient?
Or else, an initial response designed to buy time — “Thanks, let me check,” or “Got it, will look into this,” — can give you time to accomplish all three of the goals that tactical patience is designed for.
Against that, no matter what the cause, you can imagine this would be a lot more difficult if you were experiencing “elevated hostility,” or potentially adverse effects on anxiety. Patience becomes a lot more difficult under those circumstances.
They envision how other people perceive things.
Perception often leads to emotion, and emotion is a two-way street.
- First, there’s the way you perceive things: your appreciation of an external stimulus, no matter what it might be, which leads you to respond with particular emotions.
- Second, there’s how other people perceive things, including the things that you do or say to them, and how that perception leads them to respond with particular emotions.
On top of that, your perception of their emotional reaction influences your next move–and so on, and so on, and so on.
It’s all difficult enough when you accurately perceive how the other person in your conversation perceives things; it’s infinitely more difficult when you introduce misperceptions on both sides into the mix.
Thus, when we talk about improving emotional intelligence, we include a wide array of best practices:
- Choosing language deliberately, so that you don’t accidentally send a message that conflicts with what you actually want to say.
- Not only paying attention but acting as if you’re paying attention, so that you don’t telegraph indifference without meaning to.
- Remember to ask questions, both to gather more information, and to send the right secondary messages: basically attention and interest.
Imagine how much more difficult any of this would be to achieve, if you’re practicing a habit that can lead to “difficulties with accuracy and response time when identifying and differentiating between emotions.”
They don’t make unwarranted assumptions.
Emotionally intelligent people try not to create problems where they don’t exist. What’s one of the easiest ways to accomplish this?
It’s to train yourself to assume the best until you see evidence suggesting otherwise. For example:
- You go on at length at a party about how obsessed you are with a silly TV show or an unusual past-time. Obviously, nothing outside the bounds of social decency, but you feel embarrassed afterward. Emotionally intelligent people stop there; they don’t automatically assume that everyone else now thinks less of them.
- Or, your boss texts you on Friday evening, and you reply, only to hear nothing back. Emotionally intelligent people assume that’s the end of the matter unless they hear otherwise; they don’t allow their weekend to be ruined, wondering if they said the wrong thing, or somehow failed the boss’s micro-test.
- One more: You ask a question during a meeting, and realize afterward that it was all based on a math error you’d made, or else a missing fact you hadn’t known about. Emotionally intelligent people don’t let themselves worry too much that they’ve now created a bad impression among colleagues.
it’s always possible that the worst really is the truth: Yep, they think less of you, oh well. Or else, Yes, you do actually work for someone who likes to test employee control like this, good to know. Or: Yep, you made a fool of yourself, life goes on.
But, emotionally intelligent people don’t waste time on negative emotions or unproven problems until they have to.
It takes time. It takes effort. I’m not perfect at it, and I’m the one writing this article.
Again, think about how much harder this would be to perfect if you were engaging in habits that might make anxiety more acute, or make it harder to accurately differentiate between other people’s emotions.
Emerging research area
One of the funny aspects of writing about emotional intelligence is that I try to practice emotional intelligence while doing so.
That leads me to take time before writing. It leads me to think about how an article like this one is likely to be perceived by readers.
It also leads me to try to write honestly and as well as I can, but not worry too much about reactions. With that in mind, I want to make two big points at the end
First, almost all of the research on cannabis use and emotion processing has been conducted within the last decade. MacKenzie and Cservenka say that more than half of the studies they consulted were published within the last five years.
Second, it’s that I’m really not in a position to advocate for or against cannabis. I don’t use it myself; but again, it’s not as if I live a perfect life with no bad or mixed habits. I know some people need it for medicinal purposes, and others simply enjoy it.
Their business, not mine. And that also leads me to reemphasize part of their first line of the conclusion in their article, which has to do with parts of this that are an “emerging research area.”
There’s a lot more to be learned, and a lot more to work on. And, some pretty good reasons to take the time to do it.