A Pebble in a Shoe

Accurately perceiving a cause of concern and exercising emotional intelligence to manage it


June 12, 2019

By Ian Vorster | Illustration by Heather Miller

Shauna Tominey often thinks about a little boy she met early in her career as a childhood educator. Jeremy (not his real name) routinely struck out at other children. He spit at teachers, swore like a sailor and tore up classmates’ artwork. Wading through activity sessions like a monster, he would kick over blocks and toys, seemingly out of spite.

The teachers in the classroom did their best to address his challenging behaviors, but without success. Instead, they resorted to marching him down the hall to what would become his reserved naughty-chair for timeout.

Shauna Tominey
OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences researcher Shauna Tominey reads to her daughter Winter. Tominey’s work focuses on early childhood emotional intelligence and how it is taught.

Jen Pywell

“We tried to manage his behaviors,” says Tominey, now an assistant professor in Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, “but it didn’t work. Teachers grew increasingly stressed and felt burnt out. It wasn’t until we stopped and thought about Jeremy’s life experiences and his emotional needs that we were able to make a difference.”

Tominey remembers well the role that emotions played every day in that classroom. They could change in an instant from happy to sad, scared to frustrated, disappointed to excited, angry to calm. And it wasn’t just children’s emotions that shaped each day. The emotions of teachers and even family members also came into play.

Jeremy had experienced significant stress. His father was in prison, his mother had left home, and along with several other teenage cousins, he was being raised by his grandparents. “When we recognized that Jeremy had sad and lonely feelings that he wasn’t able to manage on his own, we changed our approach. We gave him more one-on-one support and attention and gradually his challenging behaviors began to disappear,” says Tominey.

Drawing on these experiences, Tominey completed her Ph.D. in human development and family sciences at OSU before joining the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence as the director of Early Childhood Programming and Teacher Education. “I found myself teaching teachers how to recognize children’s emotions and how to create nurturing environments,” she says. Part of that was teaching them how to recognize their own emotions and work with what they had.

Tominey’s book Creating Compassionate Kids focuses on early childhood emotional intelligence and how it is taught. She is continually pressing for evidence-based answers to the following questions: How do we teach young children to develop these skills in home and school settings; how might we help children learn those skills; how can adults position themselves to be role models?

“Working across different settings, I saw that the skills teachers had to teach children about their emotions varied widely. This was especially challenging in settings where children had experienced trauma, and particularly when teachers had experienced trauma as well,” says Tominey.

She began to wonder how teachers who were struggling to manage their own emotions could teach children who had difficulty expressing their emotions — whether from formative experiences that happened earlier in life or earlier that day, or perhaps even from struggling with those minor irritations that we all experience. Like a pebble in a shoe.

Emotional Intelligence

According to research literature, emotional intelligence (EI) comprises the ability to perceive, facilitate, understand and manage emotions. Being able to judge facial expressions inevitably leads to managing emotional responses in a mature or immature manner. The topic and its importance in homes, classrooms, offices and boardrooms, hit the national stage when Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, was published in 1995. The subheading, Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, caused a stir.

What are the requirements for a successful life? Goleman offered emotional intelligence as a key factor. He rejected the conventionally accepted traits of intelligence — IQ scores and alertness of mind — as elements integral to accomplishment and argued that self-control, zeal and persistence are the primary ingredients of any success story.

Understanding how emotional intelligence works not only informs teaching, but every possible career. For this reason, among others, it has been a longstanding focus for a small cohort of OSU researchers.

Bernieri Lab team
Frank Bernieri, center, a psychology professor in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts, and Morgan Stosic, an undergraduate psychology researcher, at his left, lead Bernieri’s lab team through an interpersonal sensitivity test.

Jen Pywell

The Men and the Elephant

Morgan Stosic is an undergraduate emotional intelligence researcher who works on empathy and interpersonal sensitivity studies. About to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Oregon State, she has just committed to a doctoral program in psychological sciences at the University of Maine. Stosic was recently awarded first place for a poster she presented at the annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. The poster detailed a research project on empathy scales — tools used by psychological researchers who study emotional intelligence.

Stosic examined how the scales typically differ from the concepts they are meant to measure. Using published literature and empirical data, she identified what the scales were actually predicting. In many cases, she found, they were not testing what the developers had intended to test. Frank Bernieri, Stosic’s adviser, says, “This finding is rocking the world of psychological research.”

Bernieri, a professor in the School of Psychological Science in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts, directs the Interpersonal Sensitivity Lab. In a book chapter on the subject, he writes about the complexities of measuring empathy and interpersonal sensitivity. He likens it to the metaphor of the blind men and the elephant.

Everyone can grab some part of the same beast, but it takes much longer for the men to realize which part they are touching. And it takes time to understand how what one man is holding differs from the parts held by other men.

Stosic has just provided a degree of sight to the men holding the elephant. Now, each is able to better discern what they are grappling with in terms of empathy and its measurement.

Everything Matters

Bernieri earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University and has research interests in interpersonal sensitivity, nonverbal behavior and empathy in adults. He was trained to study face-to-face interactions between people. “So that includes things like impression formation,” he says.

In contrast to the more popularized term, emotional intelligence, which refers exclusively to emotions, interpersonal sensitivity refers to every aspect of interpersonal behavior. It covers a broader skillset and is defined as the ability to sense, perceive accurately and respond appropriately to one’s personal, interpersonal and social environment. It encompasses emotional intelligence, cultural sensitivity and social sensitivity in a hierarchical fashion.

Bernieri says researchers taking a first crack at identifying the many different skills involved have only examined the most intuitively obvious ones. There are more questions than answers regarding the development of emotional intelligence.

“Perhaps the amount of social interactions that a child has is important. For instance, one element might be if you come from a large family and you have a lot of practice with human interactions,” says Bernieri.

He notes that evidence also exists to suggest that children who are raised by very expressive parents learn how to read nonverbal cues more quickly over time. Bernieri describes an expressive mother as someone who uses a lot of “motherese” when she addresses her children — a form of exaggerated speech, tone and inflection some parents use when they talk to small children.

Perception, the first step in interpersonal sensitivity, could be likened to a driver approaching a traffic light as it turns amber. After the driver recognizes the change, what follows — the decision to stop or to floor it — takes far more thought and judgement regarding time, distance and other traffic. Emotional management equates to the latter.

“You might consider it this way,” says Stosic. “Recognizing an emotion is one thing. Regulating what that might elicit, however, requires a lot more cognitive processing.”

Human Resources and Emotional Intelligence

As a graduate student, Bernieri was interviewed by Goleman, known for popularizing the EI field. But Bernieri draws a distinction between the science and Goleman’s application of it when he says, “Those who work in, or were involved with Human Resources resonated to the message Goleman was proliferating. They enthusiastically attempted to apply these ideas to their work in employee selection and training. However, the actual science behind these ideas was still in its infancy.”

Bernieri assumes that people are interested in EI because they think it means being good with people. It doesn’t. “To be good with people you need much more than EI, in the same way that to do well in school you need to be good at much more than math.”

The past 30 years of psychological science have produced a theory that supports Bernieri’s research. The theory leads researchers to what he calls “the remarkable conclusion” that a great deal of what happens during normal human interaction is happening beyond the level of conscious awareness and intentional control.

This, says Bernieri, is relevant to emotional intelligence because the lay person considers EI to be something an adult might be able to learn, develop and apply as a skill. “But it doesn’t really work that way because of the nature of the information that’s transferred,” he says.

Bernieri and colleagues have conducted experiments that produced data to support this conclusion. Subjects were given simple but detailed instructions on how to read the body language of two people to estimate how well they were getting along. They were told to focus their attention on three things that would reveal how much the two people liked one another. More importantly for this study, they were also instructed to ignore smiling and laughing because these were not predictive of rapport. Instead they were instructed to reflect on how polite and friendly a person was. But the training didn’t help at all. The most interesting finding was that subjects did incorporate smiling and laughing into their judgments but believed they had ignored them as instructed. People were apparently unable to be consciously aware of the factors on which they had based their judgments.

“Their conscious judgment policies were superseded by unconscious uncontrollable stereotype biases,” adds Bernieri with a smile.

Another important element of understanding emotional intelligence is to recognize that there are different domains. “For example,” explains Bernieri, “you have status relationships, love relationships or kinship. Someone who has had multiple romantic relationships will learn a large repertoire of behaviors in that domain.” But people who haven’t had any children might be deficient in that domain.

What Mr. Rogers Says

Mary Arnold
Mary Arnold

OSU

Mary Arnold, a professor in Oregon State’s College of Public Health and Humans Sciences, applies such knowledge to her work with youth. Arnold has an Extension appointment as a youth development specialist for the Oregon 4-H program. Her research on helping youth thrive has shown that emotional regulation is an important developmental skill. Arnold earned her Ph.D. in human development and family sciences with a focus on adolescent development at OSU in 1994.

She says, “There are two aspects to consider as young people grow. The first is learning how to regulate strong emotions. Every emotion is valid, but our response to those emotions has to be regulated.” The ability to regulate emotions increases as children develop through adolescence. Adults working with young people can help them develop emotional regulation by promoting reappraisal and the development of their expressive skills.

“An expressive skill would, for example, be the ability to identify your own anger, and then find a way to express that anger in productive, rather than harmful ways,” explains Arnold.

Sharing an example of this from her 4-H experience, Arnold recalls that a girl once told her that 4-H has taught her how to be a contented loser in competitive situations. She still gets disappointed when she loses, but now she can put things into perspective, understand why she lost and plan to do better next time.

“We call that reappraisal,” says Arnold, “so youths don’t stay in their frustration but learn to frame it differently.” Not learning how to reappraise builds internal frustration and incongruity.

Arnold adds, “As Mr. Rogers used to say, ‘Every feeling is mentionable; therefore, every feeling is manageable.’”

Creating Time and Space

When teaching college students, Tominey now embeds many of the emotional intelligence principles that she developed in early childhood environments in her teaching. She explains, “At any age, students thrive when they have positive and supportive relationships. When they feel they can trust the person they’re learning from, they want to be more like them. They seek them out for support
and they tend to be more adventurous in their learning.”

She says that in classes for children and young adults, there are often too many students for the instructors to be able to create a learning environment where every student feels heard, where every student is acknowledged, or where every student feels like they have that connection with the adults in their life. Creating the time and the space for them to interact with each other and with a teacher, in-person and devoid of any digital devices, has an enormous amount of emotional benefit, especially for those who come from a life filled with difficult circumstances, negative relations and stressful experiences.

A Final Challenge

It is challenging, says Bernieri, to test for the various dynamics of emotional intelligence and interpersonal sensitivity because small changes in the format of a test can give different results. Morgan Stosic’s study provides an important example of what needs to be corrected by researchers. He notes, “This has prevented the science from making progress, because a scientist will use an empathy scale, do a study or report something, but when someone tries to repeat the test using a different empathy scale, we’ll get a different result.”

With a smile, Bernieri says, as any scientist might, that he is excited by the fact that people are just beginning to become aware that there is a lack of consensus on the terminology and the precision in studies of emotional intelligence. “So, I’m really big on comparing the different scales and different formats. This is why Stosic’s work is so important,” he says.

The advantages of recognizing the emotions of young people and teaching them to adjust accordingly may seem obvious. Being able to do so creates a safe environment for children to identify and regulate those emotions and encourages positive development. However, while being able to regulate emotions appropriately in the workplace is necessary in every discipline, testing for different, very specific dynamics might be the “pebble in a shoe” for Frank Bernieri and his colleagues.

Enlarge

Frank Bernieri and Morgan Stosic
Frank Bernieri, a professor of psychology in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts, guides Morgan Stosic, an undergraduate psychology researcher, through a psychological test.

Ian Vorster

Rocking the World of Psychological Research

Morgan Stosic is an undergraduate psychology researcher in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts. When she embarked on a research project to explore the impact of personality traits and interpersonal skills on relationship formation, she noticed that two of the empathy scales her team was using were directly measuring empathy as a trait. She says, “The scales were measuring empathy as a stable, enduring characteristic within someone, as opposed to a particular skill that someone does well.”

She notes that this problem is important in research because trait constructs generally appear in self-report evaluation formats, while ability scales typically have right or wrong answers. Some researchers, however, mistakenly assume that self-report scales can measure an individual’s ability. It became apparent to Stosic that researchers were not only differing in the way they understood how empathy manifests (whether trait or ability) but also what exactly empathy is. For example, some researchers describe an empathic person as one who can accurately perceive the states of another — Ryan looks upset. Others view it as a more complex understanding of another person’s mind — if I were in Ryan’s shoes, I would probably be upset by the fact I failed that exam.

When psychology scientists use the catch-all term “empathy” in their research reports, they fail to capture these important differences. Stosic hopes her findings will help researchers better clarify this ambiguity.

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