3 Science-Based Truths Behind Emotional Intelligence
We all know the concept of emotional intelligence (EI).
Most of you probably heard about it after Daniel Goleman popularized the term in his best-selling book “Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ” in 1995. He described EI as:
“Abilities such as being able to motivate oneself and survive in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to manage one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope.”
His book was an absolute boom and EI soon became mainstream.
However, there had been other approaches to EI before Goleman:
- Edward Thorndike’s social intelligence.
- Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.
- Peter Salovey & John D. Mayer, who gave the first formal definition of EI, in which Goleman based his research.
- Reuven Bar-On, who coined the term emotional quotient (EQ).
However, regardless of the amount of literature, there’s never been consensus for the definition of EI, its theoretical basis, or even how it can be measured.
I gave you a little bit of historical background and now I’ll get back to what interests us. I’ll share here 3 truths I’ve learned about emotional intelligence in 1 year of research.
EQ doesn’t compensate lack of IQ
It was Goleman who brought EI to the popular culture with a very appealing title. EI promised to fix the unbalance between those labeled “intelligent” and those who weren’t.
Some years previous to the popularization of EI, Bar-On had coined the term EQ as analogous to IQ. It was music for the ears of many: If I have a low IQ, then probably I have a high EQ! Well… No.
The bad press of IQ and its inherent political incorrectness was a powerful fuel to increase EI’s popularity. And the media echoed the idea that EQ was here to save us. But, in the words of Goleman and Emmerling:
“The excitement generated in the popular media has often left the impression that high emotional intelligence might somehow compensate for a low IQ […] in essence giving the false impression that IQ matters little.”
The truth is that IQ and EQ are distinct, complementary concepts. Both seem to measure different aspects of intelligence (it’s more nuanced than this, as I’ll explain later) and both correlate with success in life to some degree.
For example, in the workplace (area in which Goleman focused his research) IQ seems to act as a “threshold competence” in the sense that to keep up with the work you have to do at your job you need a minimum level of IQ, whereas EQ seems to predict better who can be labeled as “star performer.”
But, and here comes the harsh truth, there can be people with high EQ and high IQ and people with low EQ and low IQ.
No one knows what Emotional Intelligence actually is
From the beginning, EI has been an elusive concept. In the 90s there was a split between two main perspectives:
On the one hand, some researchers defended that emotional intelligence had to be framed within the paradigm of traditional intelligences, that is, as a cognitive ability. On the other hand, others claimed that EI had to be understood within the construct of personality, that is, as a set of emotion-relevant traits.
After setting EI’s theoretical bases, researchers began to develop measurement methods.
For ability EI the usual method was a test of maximum performance. The type of tests used for IQ.
- The good thing was that these tests can’t be faked.
- The bad thing was that the construct didn’t predict what it should as good as it should.
For trait EI the most common method was self-report questionnaires (from totally agree to totally disagree).
- The good thing was that self-report methods allow for subjective answers.
- The bad thing was that anyone can fake a questionnaire and answer in a socially-accepted manner.
Other studies decided to apply self-report tests to ability EI. But thanks to Ashkanasy and Daus, a definitive taxonomy for EI was defined, which remains state-of-the-art nowadays. They established 3 streams:
- Ability EI: Maximum performance test measuring EI as ability
- Self-rated EI: Self-report questionnaires measuring EI as ability
- Mixed EI or Trait EI: Self-report questionnaires measuring EI as personality trait
Now we arrive at the big problem.
It’s generally accepted that the three streams refer to different theoretical and empirical constructs.
This makes EI a victim of the jangle fallacy: we have three concepts that refer to the same name of emotional intelligence but are different things.
Interestingly, ability EI correlates with IQ but not with the other definitions of EI, whereas self-rated EI and trait EI both correlate with each other and with personality constructs.
To tackle this disaster some have attempted to unify all perspectives into one single “correct” construct, but to date all have failed.
What makes this funny is that, while everyone talks about EI, no one knows what it is exactly.
Emotional Intelligence may not exist at all
We’re getting into quicksand!
EI has received multiple criticisms, but the fiercest criticism of all is that it lacks discriminant validity. This means, in simple words, that the construct doesn’t represent anything new.
The words emotional intelligence may just be a semantic play of something that already exists. Whatever it’s measuring, it’s already captured by previously established constructs, in particular intelligence and personality.
Recent research shows that this criticism holds both for ability EI and for self-reported EI (the second and third streams of the taxonomy).
In 2017, Van der Linden and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis and found a striking r≈0.85 correlation between the general factor of personality (GFP) –analogous to g, the general factor of intelligence– and trait EI. In their words:
“The findings […] suggest that the GFP [general factor of intelligence] is very similar, perhaps even synonymous [emphasis mine], to trait EI.”
A correlation this high implies that the two constructs being compared are basically referring to the same reality. As Bucich and MacCann put it, trait EI is just “personality re-branded.”
Regarding ability EI, O’Connor and colleagues say:
“Many personality and intelligence theorists question the very existence [emphasis mine] of ability EI, and suggest it is nothing more than intelligence. This claim is supported by high correlations between ability EI and IQ…”
However, in defense of ability EI, a very recent paper points out that “ability EI can represent a distinct set of cognitive abilities that can be placed within existing intelligence frameworks”.
Further evidence may be needed to shed a light on this issue. For now, EI may not just be falling under the jangle fallacy, but also under the jingle fallacy: concepts with different names referring to the same construct.
Emotional intelligence may be just intelligence or personality in disguise!
Citing Karl Popper:
“A new theory can be justified if it has the potential to explain things that other theories cannot, or if it has the potential to explain things better than other competing theories.”
We may need to rethink emotional intelligence as a whole.
You can still use EI to improve your life
Thus far I’ve written only ugly truths about emotional intelligence. You are probably thinking that I’m a hater. Well, nothing further from the truth. I started researching EI because I found the concept so valuable that I wanted to know more. I found things I wasn’t expecting, but I still get a lot of value from it.
Although EI may not be well conceptualized theoretically or may lack good psychometric properties, its predictive value still holds across several dimensions that we experience in our daily life.
“Emotional intelligence predicts a range of valuable outcomes”
“there is little question regarding [emotional intelligence] utility and predictive validity”
Other, more specific examples in:
“Emotional intelligence is associated in several important ways with interpersonal relationships. Qualities expected to facilitate more successful relationships […] were related to emotional intelligence”
“Academic success was found to be associated with higher levels of total EI”
“The meta-analysis yielded robust evidence of modest-to-moderate validity of trait EI for predicting academic performance”
“Higher EI was associated with higher leadership effectiveness […]. This paper establishes a link between EI and workplace measures of leadership effectiveness”
“Higher levels of emotional intelligence were associated with greater positive affect and life satisfaction and lower negative affect”
Takeaway: Aim for the best relationship with your emotions
The scientific state-of-the-art of emotional intelligence is not what I expected, but for me and for you what matters are our daily lives. I don’t care that much if scientists want to call it “emotional intelligence” or whatever other fancy names, or if they are still deciding to fit it within intelligence or personality frameworks.
In the end, what I care about is whether emotional intelligence can help me live better and improve my wellbeing. And it can. Reality doesn’t define our emotions; our emotions define reality. That’s why I aim to have the best relationship possible with them. To do this I follow a 4-step process:
What is the name of the emotion I’m feeling? Where does it come from in my body? I learn to find and link the sensations I’m having with their corresponding emotions. When I’m able to name what I’m feeling I gain power over it. How could I improve my emotional self without even knowing who is talking to me? Learn the names of the emotions and the somatic sensations.
What is the emotion trying to tell me? Is it something that makes sense or is it foolish? It may sound odd to “listen to an emotion” but the truth is that their purpose is solely to tell us something. Then, when they’ve fulfilled their goal, they go and the sensation stops. However, listening doesn’t necessarily mean obeying. Listening is just taking the message, then you can choose what you do with it.
Where is the cause in the external world for what I’m feeling? Has something happened now or is it from days or weeks ago? Are there several sources? When an emotion tells me something it always points to somewhere or someone outside in the real world. “Someone said something I didn’t like, I’ll have a public speech in 2 weeks, there is bad weather today…” Anything can be a reason to trigger an emotion. Find the causes.
Is there a discrepancy between what the emotion tells me and what I know it should be telling me? Is it overreacting? How can I reduce the misalignment between emotion and reality? In this last step I decide whether the emotion is adequately representing reality or not. Emotions are messengers of reality, but they can be misguided. It’s your job to master them and make sure they react normally. It’s the best way to minimize your suffering.