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Excerpted from Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. Copyright © 2006 by Daniel Goleman. Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. HTML and web pages copyright © by SpiritSite.com.
 

"The low road is faster than it is accurate; the high road, while slower, can help us arrive at a more accurate view of what's going on."

  Daniel Goleman,
Social Intelligence, Part 5

The two roads register information at very different speeds. The low road is faster than it is accurate; the high road, while slower, can help us arrive at a more accurate view of what's going on. The low road is quick and dirty, the high slow but mindful. In the words of the twentieth-century philosopher John Dewey, one operates "slam-bang, act-first and think-afterwards," while the other is more "wary and observant."

The speed differential between these two systems–the instant emotional one is several times faster in brain time than the more rational one–allows us to make snap decisions that we might later regret or need to justify. By the time the low road has reacted, sometimes all the high road can do is make the best of things. As the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wryly noted, "Man is not a rational animal, but a rationalizing one."

MOOD DRIVERS

While visiting a certain region of the country, I remember being pleasantly surprised by the friendly tones of the taped voice on the telephone that informed me, "Your call cannot be completed as dialed."

The warmth in that bland recorded message, believe it or not, gave me a small trill of good feeling–due largely to my years of irritation with that same message as delivered by my own regional phone company's computerized voice back home. For some reason, the technicians who programmed that message had decided that a grating, hectoring tone hit the right note, perhaps as an immediate punishment for misdialing.

I had grown to resent the obnoxious tones of that taped message–it brought to my mind the image of a too-prissy, judgmental busybody. Without fail, it put me in a bad mood, if just for a moment.

The emotional power of such subtle cues can be surprising. Consider a clever experiment done with student volunteers at the University of Würzburg in Germany. Students listened to a taped voice reading the driest of intellectual material, a German translation of the British philosopher David Hume's Philosophical Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The tape came in two versions, either happy or sad, but so subtly inflected that people were unaware of the difference unless they explicitly listened for it.

As muted as the feeling tones were, students came away from the tape either slightly happier or slightly more somber than they had been before listening to it. Yet the students had no idea that their mood had shifted, let alone why.

The mood shift occurred even when the students performed a distracting task–putting metal pins into holes in a wooden board–as they listened. The distraction, it seems, created static for the high road, hampering intellectual understanding of the philosophical passage. But it did not lessen a whit how contagious the moods were: the low road stayed wide open.

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