Book Review – Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman

Review Summary

In “Social Intelligence” Daniel Goleman points out the importance of social connections in the well being of an individual and the society in general. Much of the stuff in book seemed common sense to me, but what makes it interesting is that Goleman backs up the theories by exploring recent advances in neuroscience. The book is rich in small real life stories and anecdotes. My only complaint is that Goleman could have explained all this in under 200 pages and could have presented it in a more coherent way.


I got “Social Intelligence” as part of an award that my company gave and I am glad that someone chose this book. I have two young children and I believe this book will help me to become a more emotionally supportive parent. Reading it immediately reminded me an incident which I witnessed at a “burger joint” in Thrissur city.

My wife was in hospital for delivery and I was staying at the hospital room with my 3 year old daughter. In the evening I took her to the nearby fast food outlet. It was not the food I was after. The burger joint had toys for children such as a toy house and a toy car which could be driven inside the outlet. My daughter loved playing there. When we reached it was too early and we were the first to enter. My daughter played in the toy house for sometime and then started driving the car. Within half an hour, customers started pouring into the burger joint and a family came with a slightly elder child. While they sat at the table, the child came to the toy car my daughter was driving and since she was playing it for a while I asked my daughter to give the car to the child. She readily agreed and went back to the toy house to play there with some other children.

After half an hour or so I was getting ready to leave. Then I noticed that the child on the car was now surrounded by a couple of other children who came later. They wanted the car. I looked at the child’s parents and it appeared that they didn’t want their child to give up the car. It looked as if they encouraged their child to cling on to the car. I fear that this child may turn out to be a psychopath and will have serious emotional issues in later life. The child lacked the parental training required for social sharing. Knowingly or unknowingly his parents are setting him up for social and emotional failure. The same reason is now causing a lot of marriage breakups and divorces in our society.

Detailed Review – Social Intelligence : The New Science of Human Relationships

Goleman explains that many of our human qualities such as altruism, kindness, compassion etc. has corresponding brain chemistry and much of it is set during our childhood. So emotion security given to a child may determine his or her destiny. A child needs to be exposed to a wide variety of emotions in a healthy dose for he or she to face the later life with emotional maturity. It explains why someone brought up in a large family is emotionally stable compared to micro families. Pampering or abusing a child is a sure recipe for disaster.

“Social Intelligence” is split into six major sections and each explores different aspects of social intelligence. In “Wired to Connect” Goleman argues that our neural systems are wired for social interaction and there are two distinct social brain areas – the low road and the high road. The low road works at higher speed and is responsible for survival instinct. It is the area which is responsible for the so called “first impression”. The high road is the thinking brain which applies reason over low road response. There are special neurons in brain called mirror neurons which mirrors the emotions of the person we are interacting. This is something I have noticed for a long time.

I am a born introvert and social situations typically means torture for me. A side effect has been that I look dead serious when I interact with someone(even though internally I am sincere and want to be friendly). Now my cold behavior evokes similar cold response from the person I am interacting with. Now I think – “why is this person so rude to me” without realizing that the other person is thinking the exactly same thing! Whenever I prefixed my interaction with a smile, most of the time the response has been a similar smile and a caring response.

In the second section (Broken Bonds), Goleman explores our tendency to treat people as objects. He goes on to explore various types of people with psychological problems – Narcissists, Machiavellians and Psychopaths. All these conditions exhibit a serious lack of empathy for others. This is what prompts people to commit unimaginable crimes against others. However it becomes complicated when normal people refuse to interfere when a psychopath goes on his torture spree. Or when people refuse to help an accident victim. A good example in my society is the rapid increase in violent torture of first year students (ragging) in professional colleges – the only reason being lack of empathy and an increase in psychopaths. There is a steady corrosion of social connections and empathy and I realize that I myself has become a victim of this tendency.

In the third section (Nurturing Nature) Goleman points out that genes are not destiny. Even though we are born with specific genes, our environment can alter its behavior. It is possible that a specific genetic disease is never seen in a person simply because the triggers required to activate the gene was absent in his life! In fact our emotional relationships has the ability to affect even our appearance. A husband and wife who has spent a lengthy and happy marriage starts to appear similar like a brother and sister! The reason is that their facial muscles starts acting along same lines causing them to appear similar.

In later chapters, Goleman points to the rapid deterioration of human element/emotional aspect in healthcare.  For doctors, patients are no longer human beings, but rather machines to be repaired. He points out that various initiatives has been started in US to educate healthcare workers about the emotional aspect of treatment. In fact  years ago I had heuristically reached a conclusion that a happy and healthy person would rarely get infectious diseases. To my surprise, Goleman provides research evidence for the same.

The healthcare scene in India is frightening. It has become a big business, and the legislation required for a effective control or transparency over private hospitals are missing. Forget about empathy/compassion towards patients, in many cases patients are subject to torture and exploitation. So even very old people are recommended surgical intervention without informing the family that the surgery itself can be fatal in most cases. Old people or accident victims who are dead are put on ventilators just to squeeze money. I can go on, but it would only serve to scare you…

Goleman has an interesting perspective on hospitalization in India(In fifth section of the book titled “Healthy Connections”),

When I was living in rural India many years ago, I was intrigued to learn that hospitals in my area typically provided no food for their patients. More surprising to me was the reason: whenever  a patient was admitted, their family came along, camping out in their room, cooking their meals, and otherwise helping care for them.

How wonderful, I thought, to have people who love a patient there with him day and night to ward off emotional toll of his physical suffering. What a stark contrast to social isolation so often found in medical care in the West. 

Well Mr. Goleman, I couldn’t agree more! But unfortunately we are blindly following West in everything and I can report that top private hospitals in our country now  do enforce social isolation for patients. It is scarier here since our society is much more corrupt and hence we have no clue what doctors may do to the patients inside – sell a kidney for a change?

Goleman has a lot of small stories and anecdotes to share throughout the book and it adds life to the otherwise dry text on human relationships and neuroscience. I highly recommend “Social Intelligence”, especially for new parents. If someone asks me to summarize this book in a single line, I would quote from bible,

“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” – Matthew 7:12

Book Details

Title : Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships
Author : Daniel Goleman
My Rating : 9 out of 10 (Highly recommended if you are a parent)

Video – Daniel Goleman on the book Social Intelligence

Additional Reading

August 28, 2009 | Posted in Opinion No Comments » | By Jayson

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