By July 16, 2023January 22nd, 2024emotional system
un-intelligence is head in the sand thinking

How does intelligence get stupid?

How is it that politicians can get involved with affairs, misuse funds, and promote false information? Many politicians have degrees from prestigious universities, so they clearly are NOT unintelligent or uneducated. In today’s world of conspiracy theories, alternate facts, and outright lies, how can one think about this process from a systems perspective?

Level of differentiation and anxiety are two key concepts in Bowen theory. One quality of the level of differentiation is how well an individual can distinguish feelings and subjective thinking from facts and objective thinking. For example, let’s say that I get home late from work. I walk in and say, “Hi, I’m home!” and my partner says, “Well, it’s about time, your late.”

My “intelligence” will cognitively process the sounds I hear and allow me to recognize the words and the tone of voice.

My “emotion” will process the sounds as well, and I will actually pick the emotion that goes best with this situation. This is where the “stupid” can start. I can start to make up a story that my partner is mad and that this is unfair. But we’ll come back to this.

Chat GPT defines intelligence as “intelligence encompasses a wide range of cognitive abilities, including logical reasoning, critical thinking, creativity, memory, perception, and learning.”

Emotion impacts intelligence.

Intelligence is not independent of emotions. Part of processing information is evaluating whether something is a threat, an opportunity, or to be ignored. This requires value judgements related to fear and desire, bad and good, which becomes the behaviour of avoiding or approaching.  Even fruit flies will “decide” to forego reproductive opportunities for food opportunities if they are hungry enough. Otherwise, reproductive opportunities are always their first choice.

Our emotional state does impact our cognitive processing. For example, we can forget what we want to say when we get angry or scared. Or we get very frustrated and then blurt out something we later regret. Stress can degrade one’s ability to make decisions. In terms of human behavior, it makes no sense to speak about intelligence as independent from emotions. Based on observing interactions between parents and schizophrenic children, Dr. Bowen realized how much one’s thinking can be impacted by one’s emotional state. He noticed the impact of anxiety specifically.

Systems thinking: what, where, when, who.

Another aspect of thinking from a systems perspective is that it is more useful to ask what, when, where, who and how something comes about instead of asking why it came about. Asking why implies a direct cause-and-effect relationship, and systems don’t work like this.

When someone starts to believe ideas that many would define as false or incorrect, it can be useful to seek to understand the process of how this came about. Asking how, when, with what information, and with whom does this happen and be useful. How is it that a person doesn’t recognize false information? Or maybe how is it that a person doesn’t seem to care that the information is false? Perhaps there is something else going on.

Sometimes it’s just getting bad information. It appears to be factual, and it’s very hard to determine if it’s false or not. For example, reading something in a major newspaper that was misreported. How would one know?

But often, it’s just an impaired ability to process information in a neutral manner. The information is accessed as something threatening, and our fear circuits light up. In addition, we have built-in biases that can distort our information processing. Recency bias leads one (non-consciously) to favour information that is more recent in our experience. Loss aversion has us overcompensate for the risk of losing something. Frequency bias is when we start to believe something is a fact because we have heard it so often.  All of these have good evolutionary roots, which is why we evolved to have these processes. But anxiety, in particular, has a bigger impact on our thinking processes.

Anxious mind is “losing my mind”

When a person experiences anxiety, their thoughts and mental processes may be affected in the following ways:

1. Distorted thinking: Anxiety can lead to distorted thinking patterns, such as catastrophizing (exaggerating the likelihood and severity of negative outcomes), overgeneralizing (making broad negative assumptions based on limited experiences), or engaging in black-and-white thinking (seeing situations as all good or all bad). These distorted thoughts can contribute to increased worry and difficulty in problem-solving.

2. Selective attention: Anxiety can lead to a heightened focus on potential threats or negative stimuli. This selective attention may cause individuals to overlook positive or neutral information, leading to a biased perception of reality. They may have difficulty concentrating on tasks or absorbing new information due to their preoccupation with anxious thoughts.

3. Impaired decision-making: Anxiety can interfere with decision-making processes. Anxious individuals may become overly cautious or avoidant, fearing negative outcomes or making mistakes. They may struggle to weigh the pros and cons objectively, as their anxiety can magnify potential risks and uncertainties.

4. Memory problems: Anxiety can impact memory functioning. High anxiety levels can impair working memory, which is responsible for holding and manipulating information in the short term. It can also lead to difficulty recalling information accurately or remembering details due to heightened arousal and distraction.

5. Reduced cognitive flexibility: Anxiety can limit cognitive flexibility, making it challenging to shift attention, perspectives, or strategies. Anxious individuals may become stuck in rigid thinking patterns, finding it difficult to generate alternative solutions or adapt to changing circumstances.

6. Negative self-talk: Anxiety often involves negative self-talk, self-doubt, and self-criticism. This negative internal dialogue can further exacerbate anxious thoughts and hinder confidence and problem-solving abilities.

Differentiation makes a difference.

A person with a higher level of differentiation can differentiate factual information from feelings and subjective thoughts. Dr. Bowen defined being differentiated as having this type of thinking ability. He observed how much emotions negatively impacted an individual’s rational, objective thinking. This tended to increase their reactivity while impairing their ability to think about alternative solutions and different perspectives. Non-factual things can become more believable when anxiety is increased.

If we run this process backwards, irrational thinking in society results from rational thinking impaired by emotions, usually from some perceived threat. For example, the threat can be that an individual might have to change their beliefs, perspective, and behaviour if they think more objectively about a situation. Loss of employment, the world as they see it, status, and financial opportunity can be the underlying threat. It’s easier to blame something (cause and effect thinking) than to think systems about societal issues. An individual has to choose one of two paths. One is to blame other events or people for the situation and take on a helpless position. This avoids the other path, the often unpleasant reality of having to change, work hard, and accept one’s part in an unwanted situation.

For example, suppose a student is worried a lot about their friendships and their future. They don’t prioritize school work like they should to get good markets. So they start doing poorly in school, and they blame the teacher because all teachers are out to “get” them. They never get the “breaks” other students get. This approach, in the short term, is much less work than accepting that the student may need to work hard and face up to their fears, including that of not doing as well as others, in order to get decent grades.

Emotional logic versus intelligence.

Anxious, frustrated individuals want their discomfort to go away. They want a quick fix. They want to blame something so they are not at fault. This allows them to avoid the hard work of change that one is often faced with. One’s rational logic gets overridden by emotional logic. Emotionally, if I can blame something else so I don’t have to do a lot of work and face the risk of failure, I save a lot of time and energy. Emotional logic explains this. But rationally, it doesn’t hold up most of the time. The person has no ability to move forward from this perspective.

A systems perspective would work to understand the facts of the situation and what part I might be playing in the situation. My part might be that I happen to be in a certain place at a certain time. So if “this is what is,” a systems perspective asks, “How do I want to be? How am I going to show up,” given this situation? The answer may be very challenging. Like, stop using substances forever, find a job, and face my insecurities. Or, I have cancer; how will I lean into this and do the best I can? ( Note: It’s not about fairness. There is no checkbox on my birth certificate for “Life will be fair.”)

IQ + EQ = DQ?

I believe the level of differentiation, for fun, let’s call it DQ for Differentiation Quotient, would be a better measure of overall intelligence than emotional or IQ intelligence. DQ would indicate a person’s ability to function in a rational, objective manner, even in a highly emotional situation. They would fully utilize emotions as information without having them distort their ability to think objectively. They would act according to their principles and not cave in and go along with or reactively go against the group’s desires.

The good thing is that we can all work on our level of “DQ” and get smarter at being in relationships. And whatever level of IQ we do have will hold up under emotional pressure. I think this is pretty smart!

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway


Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Watch this thirty-minute video on Bowen Theory on selflessness here.