New neuroscience reveals 4 secrets that will make you emotionally intelligent

None of them had died thus far. The raptors and trolls of the jungles of Zul’Gurub were simply no match for the group. And now the 20 elite Warlocks and Hunters descended into the dungeon. But their greatest enemy was ready for them…

Hakkar the Soulflayer, a winged serpent, stood over the group and cackled. The Hunters lifted their swords. The Warlocks prepared to cast their most powerful magic…

But Hakkar had his own spells. As the first warrior charged him, he cast “Corrupted Blood.” The hero dropped to his knees, weakened. Barely able to lift his sword as hit points drained from him…

Alright, alright…

I know what some of you are asking: “What is this nerd fantasy crap? Barker’s finally lost his mind.” It’s relevant, I swear. In fact, this is a true story. Well, kinda true. It did happen… in the online video game World of Warcraft. On September 13, 2005, to be exact. Anyway, it’s relevant, I swear. Stick with me…

Now the effects of Hakkar’s spell weren’t just powerful – they were also contagious. “Corrupted Blood” spread from character to character in the dungeon. But here’s the thing: WOW’s programmers hadn’t properly planned this new section of the game. For one thing, they didn’t predict how players would react to the unique challenge of a virally-spreading spell.

Some characters found the battle so difficult that they teleported away — bringing the contagion with them across the virtual world of Azeroth. The programmers had never intended “Corrupted Blood” to leave the dungeon but nothing in the code of the game prevented it. Only high-level characters could play this part of the game and the powerful spell just weakened them — but lesser characters could be killed by it.

In a matter of hours, entire cities in World of Warcraft fell. The dwarven land of Ironforge and the orc home of Orgimmar were littered with virtual bodies. Panic set in. Players fled the cities, spreading “Corrupted Blood” even wider. WOW had over 4 million players at the time. In days, hundreds of thousands of characters died.

Yup: it became the first virtual global pandemic.

And how did players behave in a video game pandemic? Pretty much like normal people would. The behaviors documented may sound quite familiar to all of us in the COVID-19 era…

The game’s creators tried to create a voluntary quarantine. But players didn’t comply and the disease spread. When that didn’t work they asked players to visibly mark themselves as infected to stem the tide. (“Test and trace” anyone?) But that failed too. Other players fled to remote corners of the game world to avoid exposure — virtual social distancing. (I am unaware of any hoarding of virtual toilet paper that may have occurred.)

It may have only been a video game but the people playing were quite human and they responded emotionally, as humans do. And many of those emotional reactions were quite unexpected…

Some altruistic players traveled to the centers of the pandemic, casting healing spells to try and save the infected. Many of these “first responders” died or became vectors themselves. But other players were not so kind. A few deliberately infected themselves and then teleported to the homelands of their enemies, acting as virtual-epidemiological-suicide-bombers. (One guy even took on the role of Doomsday Prophet, shouting about the plague in the middle of the town square.)

But this was just an incident in a silly game, right? Well, the CDC didn’t think so. They reached out to Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of WOW, to get statistics on the virtual plague because the event was realistic enough that they could learn from it. And epidemiologist Nina Fefferman (a WOW player herself) wrote a paper about the “Corrupted Blood Incident” that was published in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet. Some of this data has been applied to understand the sociological aspects of the COVID-19 outbreak.

So what did they learn? Humans are emotional and hard to predict. Trying to figure out what the guy next door will do during a pandemic can be a total mystery; call it Schrödinger’s Neighbor. In the past, the computer models that epidemiologists had used failed to account for human unpredictability. However, games like WOW – a “computer model” where the behavior was driven by real humans — was far more insightful and predictive. They could be a tool to better study pandemics.

It all became a lesson in emotional intelligence.

And here we are in lovely 2020 which has thus far seemed like some alchemical hybrid of H.P. Lovecraft and the Discovery Channel. As our upside-down clown world finalizes its divorce from reality, it may seem like a really bad year to start having feelings. 2020 has thrown a flash-bang grenade into our happiness and the only rational conclusion is that this planet is haunted.

So what’s going to happen next? I don’t know but I’m in serious danger of running out of popcorn. What I do know is we need emotional intelligence more than ever. We need to maintain our connections with others, to empathize, and to work together to get through this.

Problem is, the pandemic is actually reducing our EI. The virus has created an emotional landfill in all our lives so that for some of us the only thing we’re able to connect with is a phone charger. And technology has only exacerbated the problem in many ways. Research shows too much time in front of computer screens actually reduces our ability to read the nonverbal communication of others and effectively deal with them. Yes, Zoom calls can be nice but it’s not the same as in-person conversation, just like Wii golf is not gonna turn you into Tiger Woods.

So you and I need to strengthen our emotional intelligence. And we will not be getting our EI info from an Instagram carousel or the wise manicurist at the local strip mall. Yes, I have research and I’m not afraid to use it. Now I’m not saying this is going to turn you into a force-ten-charmer but it can help us all fight the empathy atrophy of lockdown.

So what is EI? It’s a concept that John Mayer of the University of New Hampshire and Yale professor Peter Salovey came up with in the early 90’s that was subsequently studied and popularized by Daniel Goleman. Here’s Mayer’s definition.

From Harvard Business Review Guide to Emotional Intelligence:

From a scientific standpoint, emotional intelligence is the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships; and to manage your own and others’ emotions.

I’ve intellectually shrinkwrapped a lot of the data down to four R’s: Realize, Recognize, Refine, Regulate.

Maybe this is the caffeine talking, but I think it’s time to get started. Let’s get to it…

1) Realize

Self-awareness is the most essential of emotional intelligence skills. Why? Because without this guy you’ve got no way to evaluate what skills you have, what you lack and what you need to work on. You’re flying blind. So what’s the formal definition?

From HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence:

Self-awareness means having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and drives. People with strong self-awareness are neither overly critical nor unrealistically hopeful. Rather, they are honest with themselves and with others. People who have a high degree of self-awareness recognize how their feelings affect them, other people, and their job performance.

So how do you increase self-awareness? By introspection?

Wrong. That doesn’t work. In general, we are terrible at self-awareness and spinning stories in our heads only makes it worse. Ironically, you get self-awareness from other people.

From Insight:

Psychologist Timothy Smith and his colleagues powerfully demonstrated this in a study with 300 married couples in which both partners were being tested for heart disease. They asked each participant to rate both their own and their partner’s levels of anger, hostility, and argumentativeness — all strong predictors of the illness — and found that people’s self-ratings were infinitely less accurate than those of their spouses.

If you want to know yourself better, do an informal survey. Yeah, one friend might be polite and flatter you but ask five or ten pals and you’re going see some very accurate trends.

You understand yourself by connecting with others, which gives you the self-awareness to better connect with others. It’s not a paradox; it’s a virtuous upward spiral.

(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

Okay, self-awareness is powerful but by itself only confers an al dente level of emotional intelligence. To really get better, we have to learn how to deal with our own emotions in the moment…

2) Recognize And Label

You need to check in with yourself during the day. How do you feel? Asked this question, most of us, even if standing in the middle of an active volcano, will respond, “Fine.” We often don’t pay attention to our emotions until the needle is already in the red zone. And if we don’t recognize how we’re feeling we can’t  prevent it from unconsciously affecting our behavior.

So how do we get answers? That’s right: waterboarding… Whoops. I mean, by asking yourself.

Make it a habit. Set an alarm on your phone if you have to. Check in with yourself a few times a day and just ask yourself how you’re feeling. Sounds silly but we’ve all made terrible decisions only to later realize it was because we were in a bad mood. (Ever make the mistake of shopping while hungry? Exactly.)

And once you know how you feel, label the emotion to get a handle on it. Your brain can’t deal with something if you don’t know what it is, so give it a name. Neuroscience studies by Matthew Lieberman at UCLA have shown the incredible power of labeling to help us control and dampen powerful emotions.

From Permission to Feel:

…participants who were identified as having extreme fear of spiders—arachnophobia—were placed in a room with a caged spider. Some subjects used emotion words to describe their feelings in that situation, while others used emotion-neutral words to simply state the facts. The result? Members of the first group were able to take more steps closer to the cage than the other participants. Additionally, greater use of words such as “anxiety” and “fear” during exposure to the spider was associated with reductions in those emotions.

Yes, ironic as it may be, saying the word “anxious” makes you less anxious. Gotta name it to tame it. And the better you recognize emotions in yourself, the better you can eventually recognize them in others.

(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)

Okay, recognizing and labeling is necessary — but not sufficient for our purposes. Time to take it to the next level and develop some truly ferocious EI skills…

3) Refine

Labeling is good but if you can only call things “good” or “bad” you barely qualify as sentient. Being black and white about emotions demonstrates a lack of EI. If complex, nuanced emotions are no more perceptible to you than ultraviolet radiation, the world is going to be a very distressing place, especially in the age of COVID.

We need to develop “emotional granularity.” The more you can refine your understanding of your emotions, the better you can deal with them. Knowing you’re angry is good but being able to distinguish that you’re “hangry” provides a solution to the problem. And with positive emotions a more fine-grained recognition allows you to do what is needed to amplify ot extend them.

So broaden your emotional vocabulary, examine your feelings and start keeping track of the differences. Maybe you feel “stressed.” More granularly, is it anxiety about an uncertain future? Or fear of what you assume will happen? Or pressure because of too many responsibilities? This level of understanding allows you to better solve the problem.

Studies show emotional granularity leads to mucho good things.

From Permission to Feel:

…participants who were deemed granular were better able to differentiate their emotional experiences. Subjects who were low in granularity—called clumpers—were less skilled at differentiating emotions (e.g., angry, worried, frustrated). When the two groups were compared, she reported, granular individuals were less likely to freak out or abuse alcohol when under stress and more likely to find positive meaning in negative experiences. They also were better at emotion regulation—moderating their responses in order to achieve desired outcomes. The clumpers, on the other hand, scored worse on those counts, tending to be physically and psychologically ill at a higher rate than the granular crowd.

A thesaurus can help. Seriously. A better emotional vocabulary means a better understanding of yourself and others. Pinpointing exactly what you’re feeling allows you to better label and helps you make someone else feel you really “get” them.

Now this is where things get weird. The latest research shows that emotions are not set. You’re not programmed from birth with them.

From How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain:

Where emotions and the autonomic nervous system are concerned, four significant meta-analyses have been conducted in the last two decades, the largest of which covered more than 220 physiology studies and nearly 22,000 test subjects. None of these four meta-analyses found consistent and specific emotion fingerprints in the body.

Emotions are concepts we learn from culture. Physiological feelings like trembling hands are real and concrete but your brain has to interpret those though the lens of what you’re been taught to decide if it’s “nervousness” or “excitement.”

Ever see a little kid fall down and immediately look at her mother to determine how to react? Exactly. And if mom wigs out, the kid wigs out. If mom is cool, the kid doesn’t freak.

Emotions are constructs and that means other countries literally have emotions you’ve never felt.

From Permission to Feel:

Iktsuarpok is the Inuit word that describes the anticipation you feel when you’re so impatient for a guest’s arrival at your home that you keep going outside to check… Kvell is the Yiddish word that describes the feeling of overwhelming love and pride you get when you see what your child can do… In Mandarin, there were more than one hundred different shame-related terms…

And what’s that mean? Yup: you can create your own new emotions. You’ve felt plenty of things that weren’t exactly happy but not really bad… but mixed. So give that thing a new word instead of dumping it into the blurry “miscellaneous box.” That’s true emotional intelligence and this is the path to a deeper understanding of yourself and more control over your life.

That dread you feel on Sunday night, knowing you need to go to work tomorrow? “Sunday-nitis.” Or that special something that you feel around your partner? “Passion-o-rama.” Yeah, it might feel a little silly at first but don’t let that hold you back. In Japan they have “age-otori” — “The feeling of looking worse after a haircut.” We’ve all felt that. It just took one emotionally intelligent genius to give it a name. Be that genius.

Share your new emotions with others and you can feel them together. This is the path to increased understanding and closeness. Others can help you and you can help others in a much better way when they know more specifically what the heck each of you are feeling.

(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)

But sometimes negative emotions are going to get the best of us. What do we do when they grab hold of the wheel and threaten to possess us? Alrighty, it’s exorcism time…

4) Reframe To Regulate

Harvard researcher Shawn Achor did a study of bankers right after the 2008 crisis hit. Most of them were incredibly stressed. But a few were happy and resilient. What did those latter folks have in common?

They experienced the same events but their brains didn’t frame them as threats; they saw them as challenges to overcome. And just by showing the normal bankers a video explaining how to perceive stress as a challenge, he turned sad bankers into super-bankers.

Here’s what Shawn told me:

And we watched those groups of people over the next three to six weeks, and what we found was if we could move people to view stress as enhancing, a challenge instead of as a threat, we saw a 23% drop in their stress-related symptoms. It produced a significant increase not only in levels of happiness, but a dramatic improvement in their levels of engagement at work as well.

Reframe stress as excitement. Studies show the physiological states are the same, it’s only how we choose to see them that is different.

Emotions are concepts formed by the interpretation of the things happening in your body. So you can choose to experience the tingling and tremors as anxiety or excitement. Reframe the info coming in. Are those tears of sadness, tears of joy or tears of relief? It can be up to you if you try.

Don’t feel trapped by the first frame that comes to mind. Don’t be so sure of what you’re feeling immediately. Emotions are malleable and subject to interpretation; they’re not the laws of physics. Step back. Observe your emotions. Label what you’re experiencing. Ask what else it could be. Give the more positive option the benefit of the doubt.

Yes, this takes practice but it can be one of the most powerful skills you can learn. It’s the difference between handling your anger like an emotional intelligence Jedi or discussing it with the court appointed therapist.

(To learn the most fun way to make your life awesome during the pandemic, click here.)

Okay, I definitely feel my newly minted emotion of “complete-itude.” Let’s round it all up, find out how the “Corrupted Blood Incident” ended – and the important lesson we can all take away from it…

Sum Up

To become more emotionally intelligent, remember the four R’s:

  • Realize: Self-awareness, ironically, comes from others.
  • Recognize and label: Ask yourself how you’re feeling. If you answer “fine”, please slap yourself. Be specific. Label the emotion. Name it to tame it.
  • Refine: Broaden your emotional vocabulary. Distinguish emotions to find better ways to cope or to amplify them. Create new emotions and share them. (If you’re not sick with COVID but you’re sick of COVID, that’s obviously the emotion of “pandemicitis” and we can all relate.)
  • Reframe: It’s not anxiety; it’s excitement. It’s not stress; it’s a challenge. Emotions are not destiny, they are stories. Rewrite them.

The World of Warcraft pandemic was similar to other real-life plagues, almost to the point of absurdity. What did the researchers discover was the greatest source of spread? Animals. The in-game “pets” characters had could not die from “Corrupted Blood” but they did act as ongoing vectors for the contagion… Just like bats with COVID or rats with the bubonic plague. Crazy.

The virtual pandemic only lasted for a week, though. So how did it end? Ummm, they reset the game servers. Yeah, that’s where the comparison ends. Sadly, we cannot reboot Earth. But there’s still a lesson here…

In 2008 there was another plague in World of Warcraft. But it wasn’t due to evil spells this time. Nope, this time it was zombies. But this pandemic was intentional. To promote the “Wrath of the Lich King” expansion pack, WOW created the “Great Zombie Plague of ’08.” Blizzard deliberately incorporated lessons from “Corrupted Blood” to make a challenging experience that was a lot of fun for players. And it was praised as being even more realistic than the “real” pandemic Azeroth had faced three years prior.

They learned. The creators of World of Warcraft learned from their mistakes and – quite literally — created a better world.

Hindsight is 20-20. (Well, pandemics are very 2020 too, but you get my point.) We can learn from this. Reading the typical YouTube comments section you might not think humans are very smart but you can’t keep the human spirit down. No matter what faces us, we bounce back. You’d have better luck trying to circumcise Wolverine than getting our species to give up.

Right now things are bad. The only thing multiplying faster than the virus is podcasts. But we’ll get through this. But it’s not enough to merely survive; we must thrive. And we will. We have spent so much time apart due to the virus but we cannot let this degrade our ability to connect, to empathize, to grow and learn from one another.

Emotional intelligence starts with you but it quickly extends to others. Practice these skills and you no longer have to use the tired expression “I know how you feel.” You will know how someone feels. You’ll be able to describe it and understand how it differs from other feelings. You’ll relate.

And one of the greatest gifts we can give to others, now and forever, is to make them feel they are not alone in this world.

This article first appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.