The emotional intelligence revolution has already impacted the education and corporate worlds. Is it possible that it is the answer we’ve been waiting for?
If there is anything close to a consensus in the understanding of intelligence, it is that the Intelligence Quotient, or “IQ” does not wholly account for an individual’s success or failure in the world. In fact, most social scientists who study intelligence estimate that IQ accounts for only 20 to 30 percent of outcome. Even if, as proponents assert, IQ is the “best known predictor” of things like financial success, these numbers are not the kind you’d want to wager on.
The quest to discover what accounts for the rest of who we are and what we do — the remaining 70 to 80 percent — is now what drives the field.
In the early 1980s, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner entered the intelligence debate with a book called Frames of Mind — a work that shifted the intelligence testing landscape dramatically. Frames of Mind suggested that, in essence, intelligence is not a single entity, but a wide range of talents, the measure of which is absent from traditional IQ tests. This theory of Multiple Intelligence, considers musical, kinesthetic or spatial intelligences (and a number of others) alongside the more traditional verbal and mathematical skills. Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg published an article suggesting a similar idea, what he called the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence. In Sternberg’s model, there are three main areas of intelligence: practical, analytical, and creative. Like Gardner, Sternberg has produced very compelling data in defense of his theory.
But how does one quantify something like spatial or musical intelligence? Certainly these are traits we can recognize, but can we really say that someone has a musical IQ?
The Birth of Emotional Intelligence
In 1990, Dr. Peter Salovey of Yale and Dr. John Mayer of the University of New Hampshire began publishing articles about something they called “emotional intelligence.” They tested how well people could identify emotions in faces, abstract designs and colors, and from these studies, they believed they discovered a sort of universal aptitude of emotions. They eventually published an article in which they outlined what emotional intelligence was, drawing together under one umbrella a series of what seemed unrelated skills.
It wasn’t until 1995, however, when New York Times science writer Daniel Goleman wrote a popular book called Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, that the idea of emotional intelligence caught on in earnest. What has happened since is a paradigm shift in American culture, particularly in the areas of education and corporate business where Goleman’s book — and a follow-up book called Working With Emotional Intelligence — has shaken up the old order and brought the entrenched mid-century ways of teaching and business under scrutiny.
The idea of emotional intelligence lies in a handful of basic principles. Emotionally intelligent people, Goleman says, have the ability to marshal their emotional impulses (or, at least, more so than those who are not emotionally intelligent); they have the self-awareness to know what they are feeling, and are able to think about and express those things; they have empathy for the feelings of others and insight into how others think; they can do things like delay gratification; they are optimistic and generally positive; they understand easily the dynamics of a given group, and, most important, where they fit inside that group.
The Biology of Emotion
What has made this theory possible is a relatively recent boom in brain imaging technologies, which has allowed for the gradual mapping in the last few decades of the brain’s circuitry. Scientists have known for some time, for instance, that the prefrontal lobes are involved in the processing of emotion. This is why in the 1940s someone had the idea of disconnecting the prefrontal cortex from the lower brain (or altogether removing the prefrontal lobes) in mental patients, a procedure we know as a prefrontal lobotomy, and one we also know was eventually abandoned because it left patients with no emotional life at all. But not until recently have scientists understood the precise role of the prefrontal cortex; it is not, it turns out, the place emotion is formed, but where it is reasoned and processed.
The prefrontal cortex, which is part of the neocortex, what Goleman calls the “thinking brain,” interacts with an evolutionarily older part of the brain called the limbic system — what Goleman calls the “emotional brain.” A part of limbic system called the amygdala is, in Goleman’s words, “the seat of all passions,” and it has been in the identification of the function of this region that scientists have begun to understand the paths that emotions take in forming.
Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at the Center for Neural Science at New York University, made in recent years a landmark discovery about the relationship and interaction of the emotional and thinking brains. He pinpointed the neural pathways bringing information to the brain through the senses, and discovered that information entering through the eyes or ears goes first to the thalamus, which acts as a sort of mail sorter, deciding which parts of the brain to send the information to. If the incoming information, for instance, is emotional, the thalamus sends out two signals — the first to the amygdala and the second to the neocortex. What this means is that the emotional brain has the information first, and in the event of a crisis can react before the thinking brain has even received the information and had a chance to weigh the options. Goleman calls this an emotional hijacking, and it is apparently a quite common phenomenon.
The amygdala and the rest of the limbic system is in a way a remnant of a day when emotions like anger, lust or anxiety were much more useful to the survival of the species. Now such dominance by the emotional brain can result in a felony, or maybe something a little less severe and a little more common, like a blue slip.
What Does it Mean to be Emotionally Intelligent?
In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman tells the story of a study done at AT&T’s Bell Labs, a New Jersey-based think tank full of engineers who were all very successful at school and who all scored highly on IQ tests. In the study, managers and peers nominated the top 10 to 15 percent who stood out as exceptional, then the researchers reviewed the records of those people, observed them working, interviewed them — all to see what it was that could possibly separate them from such stiff competition.
What they found was that the stars were more likely to have already built networks within the lab which they could rely on when they needed them. In essence, they were the people whose email got answered when they had a question, whose phone rang when they needed it to. They were the superior collaborators, the most popular. Emotional intelligence in a very big way is about being socially adept, even sophisticated — at work or at play. “Popular and charming,” writes Goleman, “are terms we use for people whom we like to be with because their emotional skills make us feel good.”
These popular and charming people, EI proponents would argue, have a more subtle control over their emotional brain, although “control” might be a misleading word. In essence, their brains are less likely to become dominated by emotional impulses. And, though the matter is complicated, it is not really their will that separates them; more than likely, it is in some large part the environment they’ve been exposed to, the kinds of people, the situation, their upbringing. EI promoters by no means assert that emotional intelligence is a completely learned phenomenon, or that it is independent from heredity. Based, though, on what we know of the way the brain develops in the first two decades, it seems that in some ways the neurological wiring to be able to read the emotions of others is not so different from the wiring that controls your fingers and arms as you play violin: the neural pathways that last are the ones we use, the ones we need to get on in the world.
Goleman argues that teaching emotional intelligence is once and for all the answer to the problems that ail us — from high school shootings to marital problems and uncommunicative boyfriends. It accounts for, Goleman insists, a great majority of what IQ does not.
But in the end, one has to ask: how different from IQ is emotional intelligence. Though Goleman never uses the abbreviation in his book, EQ (short for emotional quotient) has inevitably cropped up and found its way into several book titles in the short five years since Emotional Intelligence was first published. Goleman himself has written two “unscientific” EQ tests, one for USA Today, the other for UTNE Reader, with questions like: “You’re trying to calm down a friend who has worked himself up into a fury at a driver in another car who has cut dangerously close in front of him. What do you do?” The multiple choice answers that follow include possibilities like “Tell him to forget it — he’s okay now and it’s no big deal.” Or, “Join him in putting down the other driver, as a show of rapport.”
It seems inevitable, based on the history of intelligence testing, that the concept of emotional intelligence will eventually be reduced to a number and used to track children or stigmatize them. It certainly mattered little when important scientists and intellectuals — including Alfred Binet, the man credited with creating the intelligence test-spoke out against such use of the early tests.
Critics of Emotional Intelligence
Some of researchers indeed warn against the dangers of treating emotional intelligence like a panacea. Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan, whose child-development research Goleman uses to talk about the nature of shy and gregarious kids, warns that emotional intelligence has the same blindspots as IQ and some people “handle anger well, but can’t handle fear. Some people can’t take joy.” A wise aproach, Kagan explains, would be to examine emotions differently, and to not encompass them in one neat package of emotional intelligence.
Another criticism of emotional intelligence is that it presumes a correct response to certain situations, when in fact a variety of emotional responses are valid. In a 1995 Time article, Dr. Paul McHugh, director of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, lashed out at the idea of teaching emotional intelligence, which he sees as a poor attempt to reinvent the encounter group. “The author is presuming that someone has the key to the right emotions to be taught to children,” he says. “We don’t even know the right emotions to be taught to adults. Do you really think a child or eight or nine really understands the difference between aggressiveness and assertiveness?”
The idea of emotional intelligence certainly seems to have come along at the right time. Goleman refers in his book to the 1989 massacre at an elementary school in Stockton, California, as somehow the pinnacle of what can go wrong with a society not in touch with its emotions. As we all know now, this seemingly isolated event was just the preface to a long and bloody string of shootings that have occurred since 1995, when the book was published, all of which seem to support various ideas in Emotional Intelligence, that even if there is not one proper response to emotions like anxiety, guilt or anger, there are certainly inappropriate responses.
And, examining it in the context of the long history of intelligence study, emotional intelligence — like the models presented by Gardner and Sternberg — while not an exact science (or even much hope to be), seems to present the model of a more level playing field, and perhaps a more sophisticated view of intellect. If emotional intelligence is not appropriated as yet another tool of exclusion-and that danger certainly looms-it might very well be making the world a better place, and that’s not something many people would make the mistake of saying about the intelligence test.