EI, meet IR: the emotionally attuned strategist


Know yourself, know your enemy, and in 100 battles you’ll never be defeated.

It’s the only bit of Sun Tzu everyone remembers, and that’s good news for me, because the Master and I are of one mind. We’re both thinking about emotional intelligence (EI) and its role in war.

A note for newcomers – emotional intelligence is a big deal. It’s in demand in the workplace and in on the dating scene.  Shelf-loads of books have already been written about it, with many asking the two key questions: how emotionally intelligent am I; and how can I become more emotionally intelligent? (Answers: ‘hard to say’, and ‘with difficulty’). The concept is fairly new, and rather fuzzy. The landmark publication dates only to the mid-nineties. And the tumult of research unleashed since then has only added to the confusion. That’s because EI is a composite of lots of different attributes, and also because measurement is typically via self-reported answers to questionnaires.

Broadly though, there are two elements to EI: self-knowledge and an understanding of others. Paging Dr Tzu. Intriguingly, it turns out that the two are related at a neurological level. Similar brain networks are implicated in thinking of ourselves as when reflecting on others. In particular, imagining our future self is cognitively rather similar to reflecting on other minds ‘out there’. It seems plausible that people with good self-awareness have a decent appreciation of others too. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the ‘self’ we perceive as our essence is largely a reflection of what we think others see in us. That’s not an original thought, by the way – the Romantic philosopher Johann Fichte, much admired by Clausewitz, was onto it first.

Strangers to ourselves

Let’s start though, with what seems what should be the easiest part of Sun Tzu’s injunction: know yourself. Next time I’ll unpick how we might go about understanding others, including our enemies.

It’s important to know who we are in order to understand what we really want in life, and what we’ll do to get it. But what are you really like? To paraphrase Del Amitri, you’re always the last to know. Study after study shows we are poor judges of our own character. You can read entertaining accounts here and here. And yet, we fancy ourselves rational and objective actors, even as we see others as manifestly deluded. An example from the world of high politics: the irascible, volatile and thin-skinned US President Nixon apparently thought himself a calm, deliberative sort, who only put on the trappings of a ‘mad man’ to impress his enemies. Cobblers. He should have asked his friends; they knew.

Why are we so poor at knowing ourselves? A gazillion dollar self-help industry exists because of this design glitch in human cognition. My own therapeutic services are available at a discounted rate for readers of Defence in Depth. One problem is motivated reasoning – we like to think of ourselves as the good guys, and as better than we actually are. Who wants to think of themselves as a ‘toxic leader’? Another problem, without getting too existential about it all, is which ‘us’ we are talking about knowing. The idea that we have a single cohesive ‘self’ is problematic. We have multiple identities, each activated in part by different circumstances: that’s the corollary of the ‘social self’. Moreover, introspection doesn’t help, because much of the action takes place in our unconscious mind. Clever experiments with ‘split brain’ patients demonstrate that we are rationalisers not rationalists — instantly coming up with plausible stories about the world and our place in it. We narrate our lives in ways that make sense, and that paint us in a favourable light – to wit, President Nixon.

So who are you on the inside? You could try a Myers Briggs personality test — but let me save you some time: they are absolute hokum. If you take one twice, just weeks apart, you’re likely to get a different result. A more reliable personality test is of the ‘big five’ personality traits. Are you conscientious? An anxious sort? Extroverted? Open to new ideas? You can take a short version online here. Of course, that’s still self-reported, but at least there’s consistency if you re-take it. There are problems with the big five – starting with the question of why those five? But it’s as good a jumping off point as any to talk about personality. And there’s some evidence that personality traits like those shape life goals and outcomes.

In the interests of transparency, here are my results. BLUF: I would not make a good brutal dictator. As you might expect, I’m conscientious, hard-working and diligent. I’m prone to worrying (especially about what others think of me). I’m also open to new ideas, especially cultural and intellectual ones. Do I sound much like an academic to you?

What does that all mean for strategy? It’s tricky to say, because leaders come in all shapes and sizes. Caring what others think might be a good trait in a democratic leader – but on the other hand, being overly anxious to please might not cut much mustard when there are difficult choices to make. Being an introvert might not be much use either – two of the last four British Prime Ministers have been rather socially awkward, but then both were electoral disasters as PM.

Still, getting to the top of the sometimes cutthroat world of politics seems to favour certain personality types – the ability to understand other perspectives, while not being too sensitive about others feelings, the desire to climb an intensely competitive dominance hierarchy, and a preparedness to focus single-mindedly on doing so, even at great cost to you and those around you. High self-regard and resilience might be part of the package too. These are ‘male typical’ traits – there are consistent averagegender differences in big five traits; and that’s certainly worth thinking about when we reflect on international relations. Who is attracted to high politics? What sort of person succeeds in ascending the throne? And what does that personality type do for the character of international affairs?

There’s a long tradition of personality studies in political psychology – Fred Greenstein‘s work on presidential personalities was on the reading lists when I was a student, but it’s fallen out of fashion lately. One problem is with diagnosing from afar, on the basis of imperfect information. That’s the job of sensitive historians, really, not amateur psychologists.

But Donald Trump has reinvigorated the field. It’s time to look again at personality and politics. Personality matters in politics because to a considerable extent, the world isn’t just out there, it’s in here – inside us. The ways in which we interpret life’s events matters. Geneticists talk about the ‘nature of nurture’ – that is, the way our genetic inheritance influences the environments we choose to inhabit, and then shapes the way we then interpret that environment. So Eeyore wouldn’t be happy for long even if all his dreams came true, whereas Tigger is cheery and optimistic regardless of what’s going on. And Owl will always be a pompous ass, unreflectively pretending to be smarter than he really is. A stable genius, you might say.

So there you are: it might be important for winning battles, but knowing yourself is trickier than it first seems. And if knowing me is hard, knowing you is even harder. That’s the story for next time.

Image via max pixel


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