Emotional Intelligence? I'm not feeling it.

Emotional Intelligence is a confused and confusing concept.

Indeed, a key group of proponents of the Emotional Intelligence (EI) construct recently published a defense of their work in the American Psychologist (September 2008), essentially arguing that the meaning of the term has been subverted. Professors John Mayer, Peter Salovey and David Caruso acknowledged that there is a "schism in the field" and that the term is now being used "in too many different ways" and to "cover too many things."

Writing in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Professor Edwin Locke worded his criticism more bluntly by asking rhetorically: "What does EI not include?"

It was in 1990 that Mayer and Salovey first outlined their views on EI, suggesting that it represented a distinct set of abilities. The idea that the human skill set involves something more than just IQ was not new at the time, nor was the term "emotional intelligence." What Mayer and Salovey provided was a model that could serve as the foundation for research and a "test" that purported to measure EI. Their focus was on the ability to perceive and understand emotions and to use them to facillitate thinking.

In 1995, Daniel Goleman published his hugely successful book, "Emotional Intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ," and with it's release, the term found a permanent place in the popular imagination and in the annals of pop psychology. What Goleman and others added to the model was the idea that EI can refer to any number of positive personality traits, such as self-esteem, optimism and need for achievement, and any number of social skills, habits and behavioral preferences.

When I was in school, there was no literature on "emotional intelligence" - the term had not yet been coined. I became aware of the topic by reading a Time magazine cover story on Goleman's work and was skeptical from the start. Everything I read about EI seemed to suggest that it was just a re-packaging of standard and well-established ideas from the psychological literature. And the package wasn't appealing.

Before the advent of EI, we already knew that performance and achievement are responsive to motivation. There was never any question about the fact that there are a variety of different ego-strengths that serve to complement intellectual abilities and to enhance performance. Our ability to describe individuals as having different levels of social and interpersonal skills was never in question. Our understanding of personality traits was already intensely developed. We knew all along that the ability to use insight, introspection and personal reflection to understand our feelings and those of others was useful. Taken from personality tests, a term used to describe those who tended to think about their thoughts and their feelings was "psychological mindedness."

What the EI theorists introduced was the idea that there is a specific set of personality traits and/or a specific set of skills relating to the understanding or use of emotions that can be interpreted as "an intelligence." What they violated was the idea that constructs have meaning. In other words, there is a distinction between an ability and an achievement, a skill and a habit, an attitude and a value, a personality trait and an emotional state, and so on. Those distinctions are central to science and theory construction.

In arguing that EI is not a valid concept, Professor Locke put it like this:

"The fundamental problem here is that one cannot 'reason with emotion.' This is a contradiction in terms. Reason and emotion are two very different cognitive processes, and they perform very different psychological functions ... One cannot 'reason with emotion;' one can only reason about it ... what they (EI advocates) are actually referring to is not another form or type of intelligence, but intelligence applied to a particular life domain: emotions."
In their recent American Psychologist article, Mayer, Salovey and Caruso were attempting to defend the idea that one can "reason with emotion," and at the same time, to fend off the pop psychology advocates of EI who have hijacked the term and essentially defined it as including anything at all psychological. An author and hiring consultant says that the "ability to learn from mistakes" is a form of EI. Another says that if a manager has a "democratic" leadership style, that is an example of EI. The ability to make friends and to control impulses have also been added to the definition of EI.

While there are certainly many recognizable competencies that help us navigate life, it makes no sense to say that everything that is not a function of IQ is a function of EI. "Emotional intelligence" has come to bear little resemblance to what we would ordinarily refer to as either an emotional function or an intellectual one. Mayer, Salovey and Caruso say that "managing emotions" is part of the EI equation. Conceptually, it makes no sense to say that emotional control is any type of "intellectual task."

So what sustains the use of the term EI?

As researchers, Mayer, Salovey and Caruso are professionally invested in their model and wish to reclaim it for a scientific purpose (by the way, they believe that EI is best measured by their commercially available test instrument).

In the pop psychology field, EI serves an industry of authors and consultants, ready to sell their insights.

And in the popular imagination, EI is the concept that levels the playing field. In the words of Professor Locke, EI is about "egalitarianism: redefining what it means to be intelligent so that everyone will, in some form, be equal in intelligence to everyone else." EI consultants have floated the notion that success and performance in life requires everything but actual intelligence: you don't have to be smart and you don't have to be a rocket scientist. "Joe the Plumber's" common sense is just as good as a Harvard Law degree. Intelligence and scholarship are simply the values of the elite.

In the end, it remains quite obvious that raw intellect is not necessarily worth as much as some give it credit for. Intelligence is not a substitute for good judgment. Practical wisdom does not follow from the conferring of a degree. My gardener tells me things that make sense that I would never have figured out on my own. The guys who were described as "the smartest guys in the room" are the same ones who brought down the Enron Corporation. Great political failures have been perpetrated by those who were chosen because they were the "best and the brightest." The "absent minded professor" is a well-known stereotype.

For many of life's endeavors, intellect may be necessary, but not sufficient. Does the concept of "emotional intelligence" provide a satisfactory explanation for whatever else is necessary? I'm not feeling it.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.