Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ
Tenth Anniversary Edition of Emotional Intelligence
In 1990, in my role as a science reporter at The New York Times , I chanced upon an article in a small academic journal by two psychologists, John Mayer, now at the University of New Hampshire, and Yale’s Peter Salovey. Mayer and Salovey offered the first formulation of a concept they called “emotional intelligence.”
Those were days when the preeminence of IQ as the standard of excellence in life was unquestioned; a debate raged over whether it was set in our genes or due to experience. But here, suddenly, was a new way of thinking about the ingredients of life success. I was electrified by the notion, which I made the title of this book in 1995. Like Mayer and Salovey, I used the phrase to synthesize a broad range of scientific findings, drawing together what had been separate strands of research—reviewing not only their theory but a wide variety of other exciting scientific developments, such as the first fruits of the nascent field of affective neuroscience, which explores how emotions are regulated in the brain.
I remember having the thought, just before this book was published ten years ago, that if one day I overheard a conversation in which two strangers used the phrase emotional intelligence and both understood what it meant, I would have succeeded in spreading the concept more widely into the culture. Little did I know.
The phrase emotional intelligence , or its casual shorthand EQ , has become ubiquitous, showing up in settings as unlikely as the cartoon strips Dilbert and Zippy the Pinhead and in Roz Chast’s sequential art in The New Yorker . I’ve seen boxes of toys that claim to boost a child’s EQ; lovelorn personal ads sometimes trumpet it in those seeking prospective mates. I once found a quip about EQ printed on a shampoo bottle in my hotel room.
And the concept has spread to the far corners of our planet. EQ has become a word recognized, I’m told, in languages as diverse as German and Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Malay. (Even so, I prefer EI as the English abbreviation for emotional intelligence. ) My e-mail inbox often contains queries from, for example, a doctoral student in Bulgaria, a schoolteacher in Poland, a college student in Indonesia, a business consultant in South Africa, a management expert in the Sultanate of Oman, an executive in Shanghai. Business students in India read about EI and leadership; a CEO in Argentina recommends the book I later wrote on that topic. I’ve also heard from religious scholars within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism that the concept of EI resonates with outlooks in their own faith.
Most gratifying for me has been how ardently the concept has been embraced by educators, in the form of programs in “social and emotional learning,” or SEL. Back in 1995 I was able to find only a handful of such programs teaching emotional intelligence skills to children. Now, a decade later, tens of thousands of schools worldwide offer children SEL. In the United States many districts and even entire states currently make SEL a curriculum requirement, mandating that just as students must attain a certain level of competence in math and language, so too should they master these essential skills for living.
In Illinois, for instance, specific learning standards in SEL abilities have been established for every grade from kindergarten through the last year of high school. To give just one example of a remarkably detailed and comprehensive curriculum, in the early elementary years students should learn to recognize and accurately label their emotions and how they lead them to act. By the late elementary years lessons in empathy should make children able to identify the nonverbal clues to how someone else feels; in junior high they should be able to analyze what creates stress for them or what motivates their best performance. And in high school the SEL skills include listening and talking in ways that resolve conflicts instead of escalating them, and negotiating for win-win solutions.
Around the world Singapore has undertaken an active initiative in SEL, as have some schools in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea. In Europe the U.K. has led the way, but more than a dozen other countries have schools that embrace EI, as do Australia and New Zealand, and here and there countries in Latin America and Africa. In 2002 UNESCO began a worldwide initiative to promote SEL, sending a statement of ten basic principles for implementing SEL to the ministries of education in 140 countries.
In some states and nations SEL has become the organizing umbrella under which are gathered programs in character education, violence prevention, antibullying, drug prevention, and school discipline. The goal is not just to reduce these problems among schoolchildren but to enhance the school climate and, ultimately, students’ academic performance.
In 1995 I outlined the preliminary evidence suggesting that SEL was the active ingredient in programs that enhance children’s learning while preventing problems such as violence. Now the case can be made scientifically: helping children improve their self-awareness and confidence, manage their disturbing emotions and impulses, and increase their empathy pays off not just in improved behavior but in measurable academic achievement.
This is the big news contained in a recently completed meta-analysis of 668 evaluation studies of SEL programs for children from preschoolers through high school. 1 The massive survey was conducted by Roger Weissberg, who directs the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning at the University of Illinois at Chicago—the organization that has led the way in bringing SEL into schools worldwide.
The data show that SEL programs yielded a strong benefit in academic accomplishment, as demonstrated in achievement test results and grade-point averages. In participating schools, up to 50 percent of children showed improved achievement scores, and up to 38 percent improved their grade-point averages. SEL programs also made schools safer: incidents of misbehavior dropped by an average of 28 percent; suspensions by 44 percent; and other disciplinary actions by 27 percent. At the same time, attendance rates rose, while 63 percent of students demonstrated significantly more positive behavior. In the world of social science research, these are remarkable results for any program promoting behavioral change. SEL has delivered on its promise.
In 1995 I also proposed that a good part of the effectiveness of SEL came from its impact in shaping children’s developing neural circuitry, particularly the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex, which manage working memory—what we hold in mind as we learn—and inhibit disruptive emotional impulses. Now the first preliminary scientific evidence for that notion has arrived. Mark Greenberg of Pennsylvania State University, a codeveloper of the PATHS curriculum in SEL, reports not only that this program for elementary school students boosts academic achievement but, even more significantly, that much of the increased learning can be attributed to improvements in attention and working memory, key functions of the prefrontal cortex. 2 This strongly suggests that neuroplasticity, the shaping of the brain through repeated experiences, plays a key role in the benefits from SEL.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me has been the impact of EI in the world of business, particularly in the areas of leadership and employee development (a form of adult education). The Harvard Business Review has hailed emotional intelligence as “a ground-breaking, paradigm-shattering idea,” one of the most influential business ideas of the decade.
Such claims in the business world too often prove to be fads, with no real underlying substance. But here a far-flung network of researchers has been at work, ensuring that the application of EI will be grounded in solid data. The Rutgers University-based Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations (CREIO) has led the way in catalyzing this scientific work, collaborating with organizations that range from the Office of Personnel Management in the federal government to American Express.
Today companies worldwide routinely look through the lens of EI in hiring, promoting, and developing their employees. For instance, Johnson & Johnson (another CREIO member) found that in divisions around the world, those identified at midcareer as having high leadership potential were far stronger in EI competencies than were their less-promising peers. CREIO continues to foster such research, which can offer evidence-based guidelines for organizations seeking to enhance their ability to achieve their business goals or fulfill a mission.
When Salovey and Mayer published their seminal article in 1990, no one could have envisioned how the scholarly field they founded would be thriving just fifteen years later. Research has blossomed in this area; while in 1995 there was virtually nothing in the scientific literature on EI, today the field has legions of researchers. A search of the database for doctoral dissertations investigating aspects of emotional intelligence yields more than seven hundred completed to date, with many more in the pipeline—not to mention studies done by professors and others not counted in that database. 3
The growth of this area of scholarship owes much to Mayer and Salovey, who, along with their colleague David Caruso, a business consultant, have worked tirelessly on behalf of the scientific acceptance of emotional intelligence. By formulating a scientifically defensible theory of emotional intelligence and providing a rigorous measure of this capacity for effective living, they have set an impeccable research standard for the field.
Another major source of the burgeoning academic findings about EI has been Reuven Bar-On, now at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Houston, whose own theory of EI—and high-energy enthusiasm—have inspired many studies using a measure he devised. Bar-On has also been instrumental in developing and editing academic books that have helped give the field a critical mass, including The Handbook of Emotional Intelligence .
The growing EI field of study has met some entrenched opposition within the insular world of scholars of intelligence, particularly those who embrace IQ as the sole acceptable measure of human aptitudes. Nevertheless, the field has emerged as a vibrant paradigm. Any important theoretical model, observed the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, should become progressively revised and refined as more stringent tests of its premises are made. That process seems well under way for EI.
There are by now three main models of EI, with dozens of variations. Each represents a different perspective. That of Salovey and Mayer rests firmly in the tradition of intelligence shaped by the original work on IQ a century ago. The model put forth by Reuven Bar-On is based on his research on well-being. And my own model focuses on performance at work and organizational leadership, melding EI theory with decades of research on modeling the competencies that set star performers apart from average.
Unfortunately, misreadings of this book have spawned some myths, which I would like to clear up here and now. One is the bizarre—though widely repeated—fallacy that “EQ accounts for 80 percent of success.” This claim is preposterous.
The misinterpretation stems from data suggesting IQ accounts for about 20 percent of career success. Because that estimate—and it is only an estimate—leaves a large portion of success unaccounted for, we must seek other factors to explain the rest. It does not mean, however, that emotional intelligence represents the rest of the factors in success: they certainly include a very wide range of forces—from the wealth and education of the family we are born into, to temperament, to blind luck and the like—in addition to emotional intelligence.
As John Mayer and his associates point out: “To the unsophisticated reader, bringing up the ‘80 percent unaccounted for variance’ suggests that there may indeed be a heretofore overlooked variable that truly can predict huge portions of life success. Although that is desirable, no variable studied in a century of psychology has made such a huge contribution.” 4
Another common misconception takes the form of recklessly applying this book’s subtitle—“Why it can matter more than IQ”—to domains like academic achievement, where it does not apply without careful qualification. The extreme form of this misconception is the myth that EI “matters more than IQ” in all pursuits.
Emotional intelligence trumps IQ primarily in those “soft” domains where intellect is relatively less relevant for success—where, for example, emotional self-regulation and empathy may be more salient skills than purely cognitive abilities.
As it happens, some of these circumscribed realms are of major importance in our lives. One that comes to mind is health (as detailed in Chapter 11 ), to the extent that disturbing emotions and toxic relationships have been identified as risk factors in disease. Those who can manage their emotional lives with more calm and self-awareness seem to have a distinct and measurable health advantage, as has now been confirmed by many studies.
Another such domain is romantic love and personal relationships (see Chapter 9 ), where, as we all know, very smart people can do very dumb things. A third—though I have not written about it here—occurs at the top levels of competitive endeavors such as world-class sports. At that level, as I was told by a sports psychologist who coaches U.S. Olympic teams, everyone has put in the requisite ten thousand-plus hours of practice, so success hinges on the athlete’s mental game.
Research findings about leadership in business and the professions paint a more complex picture (Chapter 10 ). IQ scores predict extremely well whether we can handle the cognitive challenges that a given position demands. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of studies have shown that IQ predicts which career rungs a person can manage. No question there.
But IQ washes out when it comes to predicting who, among a talented pool of candidates within an intellectually demanding profession, will become the strongest leader. In part this is because of the “floor effect”: everyone at the top echelons of a given profession, or at the top levels of a large organization, has already been sifted for intellect and expertise. At those lofty levels a high IQ becomes a “threshold” ability, one needed just to get into and stay in the game.
As I proposed in my 1998 book Working with Emotional Intelligence , EI abilities rather than IQ or technical skills emerge as the “discriminating” competency that best predicts who among a group of very smart people will lead most ably. If you scan the competencies that organizations around the world have independently determined identify their star leaders, you discover that indicators of IQ and technical skill drop toward the bottom of the list the higher the position. (IQ and technical expertise are much stronger predictors of excellence in lower-rung jobs.)
That point was developed more fully in my 2002 book Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence (coauthored with Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee). At the very highest levels, competence models for leadership typically consist of anywhere from 80 to 100 percent EI-based abilities. As the head of research at a global executive search firm put it, “CEOs are hired for their intellect and business expertise—and fired for a lack of emotional intelligence.”
When I wrote Emotional Intelligence , I saw my role as that of a science journalist, reporting on a significant new trend in psychology, particularly the merging of neuroscience with the study of emotions. But as my involvement in the field deepened, I stepped back into my old role as psychologist to offer my insights into models of EI. As a result, my formulation of emotional intelligence has progressed since I wrote these pages.
In Working with Emotional Intelligence I proposed an expanded framework that reflects how the fundamentals of EI—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and the ability to manage relationships—translate into on-the-job success. In doing so, I borrowed a concept from David McClelland, the Harvard psychologist who had been my mentor in graduate school: competency .
While our emotional intelligence determines our potential for learning the fundamentals of self-mastery and the like, our emotional competence shows how much of that potential we have mastered in ways that translate into on-the-job capabilities. To be adept at an emotional competence like customer service or teamwork requires an underlying ability in EI fundamentals, specifically social awareness and relationship management. But emotional competencies are learned abilities: having social awareness or skill at managing relationships does not guarantee that one has mastered the additional learning required to handle a customer adeptly or to resolve a conflict. One simply has the potential to become skilled at these competencies.
Again, an underlying EI ability is necessary, though not sufficient, to manifest a given competency or job skill. A cognitive analog would be the student who has excellent spatial abilities yet never learns geometry, let alone becomes an architect. So, too, can one be highly empathic yet poor at handling customers—without having learned the competency for customer service. (For those ultradedicated souls wanting to understand how my current model nests twenty or so emotional competencies within the four EI clusters, see the appendix to Primal Leadership .)
In 1995 I reported data from a nationwide, demographically representative sample of more than three thousand children aged seven to sixteen, rated by their parents and teachers, showing that over the decade or so between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, indicators of emotional well-being among America’s kids underwent a marked decline. These children were more troubled and had more problems, ranging from loneliness and anxiety to disobedience and whining. (Of course, there are always individual exceptions—children who grow up to be outstanding human beings—whatever the overall numbers show.)
But a later group of children, rated in 1999, seem to have improved markedly, rating far better than those in the late 1980s, though they were not quite restored to the levels recorded in the mid-1970s. 5 True, parents are still likely to complain in general about their kids, still concerned that their children are hanging out with “bad influences,” and whining seems worse than ever. But the trend is clearly upward.
Frankly, I’m puzzled. I had conjectured that today’s children are unintended victims of economic and technological progress, deskilled in EI because their parents spend more time at work than in previous generations, because increased mobility has cut ties to extended family, and because “free” time has become so structured and overorganized. After all, emotional intelligence has traditionally been passed on in the midst of everyday life—with parents and relatives, and in the rough-and-tumble of free play—opportunities that are now being lost to the young.
Then there’s the technological factor. Today’s children spend more time alone than ever before in human history, staring at a video monitor. That amounts to a natural experiment on an unprecedented scale. Will these tech-savvy children become adults who are as comfortable with other people as they are with their computers? I suspected, rather, that a childhood spent relating to a virtual world would deskill our young people when it came to relating person to person.
So went my arguments. Nothing has happened in the last decade or so to reverse these trends. Yet children, thankfully, seem to be faring better.
Thomas Achenbach, the University of Vermont psychologist who has done these studies, hypothesizes that the economic boom of the 1990s lifted children as well as adults; more jobs and less crime meant better childrearing. Should there be another major economic recession, he suggests, we would see another decline in this measure of children’s skills for life. That may well be; only time will tell.
The hyperspeed at which EI has become a topic of importance in a wide array of fields makes prediction difficult, but let me offer some thoughts on what I hope for the field in the near future.
Many of the benefits that accrue from developing emotional intelligence capabilities have gone to the privileged, such as high-level business executives and children in private schools. Of course, many children in impoverished neighborhoods have also benefited—for instance, if their schools implemented SEL. But I encourage a further democratization of this variety of human skill development, reaching into often-neglected pools, like families in poverty (where children so often suffer emotional wounds that compound their plight) and to prisons (particularly for young offenders who could benefit enormously from strengthening skills like anger management, self-awareness, and empathy). Given the right help with these abilities, their lives would improve, and their communities would be safer.
I’d also like to see the scope of thinking about emotional intelligence itself expand, leaping from a focus on capacities within the individual to a focus on what emerges when people interact, whether one on one or in larger groups. Some research, notably the University of New Hampshire psychologist Vanessa Druskat’s work on how teams can become emotionally intelligent, has seamlessly made this leap already. But much more could be done.
Finally, I envision a day when emotional intelligence will have become so widely understood that we need not mention it because it has melded with our lives. In such a future, SEL would have become standard practice in schools everywhere. Likewise, EI qualities such as self-awareness, managing destructive emotions, and empathy would be givens in the workplace, “must-haves” for being hired and promoted, and most especially for leadership. If EI were to become as widespread as IQ has become, and as ingrained in society as a measure of human qualities, then, I believe, our families, schools, jobs, and communities would be all the more humane and nourishing.
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