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Can stories make people more emotionally intelligent? Lindberg winner gives lecture

There is an obvious and logical gain in knowledge from memorizing facts and figures, but what about from reading a book? Do people gain anything from following a story from beginning to end? What if by reading and understanding stories, people gained a better understanding of how other humans work?  

University of New Hampshire (UNH) Professor of Psychology John D. Mayer discussed these questions during his Lindberg lecture on Oct. 18. The lecture was organized as a result of Mayer receiving the Lindberg award, which is given annually to an outstanding teacher and scholar in the College of Liberal Arts. 

Mayer focused his lecture not on “thing-based intelligence” as he calls it, but “people-centered intelligences.” These intelligences focus on our ability to understand and predict actions of others rather than on our ability to memorize something. “My aims are to identify overlooked human intelligences so as to more fully represent human capacities, to measure them fairly ensuring diversity in item content and removing biased test items and to understand the impacts of these intelligences on people’s lives,” said Mayer. 

Among these “overlooked intelligences” are people-centered intelligences, including emotional intelligence, personal intelligence (reasoning about personality), and social intelligence. Mayer defines this as “the capacity to reason accurately about emotion and the emotional information and to use that information in one’s life.” 

But where does intelligence come from?  “Intelligences are influenced by biology and the environment,” said Mayer. But that doesn’t mean we are stuck with what we have, according to Mayer.  

He cited a study that analyzed the effects of school on a person’s general IQ, which is a combination of thing-based intelligence and personal intelligence. “Our most recent estimate is that each year of schooling raises a person between about two to five IQ points,” said Mayer. However, Mayer also pointed out that the two point estimate is the most likely. 

So then how do stories increase our emotional intelligence?  

“Narratives interweave people-centered issues into complex systems that reflect real life experiences,” said Mayer. Another benefit to stories is they depersonalize experiences and allow people to be put in other’s shoes. This has led Mayer to hypothesize one benefit to a liberal arts education. “Maybe a liberal arts education strengthens students’ capacities to reason about people, raising their people centered intelligences,” he said.  

Citing a study done at West Point Military Academy, Mayer showed that there was a higher correlation between “thing-related” intelligence (visuo-spatial intelligence) and GPA in STEM classes than personal-intelligence (an intelligence about people). However, the opposite was true for liberal arts classes. 

During the lecture, Mayer invited the audience to participate in a test of emotional intelligence. The audience was given scenarios and was asked what would be the best way to act in each one.  

Mayer also said that scoring high in emotional intelligence doesn’t always correspond with the success you would imagine from someone with a higher emotional intelligence. This is because  there is a difference between knowing the best way to deal with a situation and actually following through with it. 

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