Is 'Emotional Intelligence' Real?

As we noted in NurtureShock, emotional intelligence is having a family feud. The field is commonly described as having its commercial wing and its academic wing; on the commercial side is bestselling author Daniel Goleman, and on the academic side are scholars like the Yale dean Peter Salovey, whose team conceptualized one of the first theoretical models of emotional intelligence. A year ago, Salovey publicly slammed Goleman at the American Psychological Association conference for making unrealistic and misleading promises about EI. Salovey said the research data on EI do not yet support Goleman's hype.

In my last post, I noted that new and better apples-to-apples measurements of college freshman grades have shown the SAT is a better predictor of college success than most have reported. It's still terribly far from perfect, and there's no argument to judge children on SAT scores alone, but the SAT shouldn't be thrown out. Today we're looking at the other side of the coin - how well measureable emotional intelligence does in predicting college success.

The research out there isn't proving emotional intelligence to be a universal asset in careers or life-decision making. It's simply not predictive of the positive outcomes Goleman anticipated.

Now comes another glancing blow. Constance Mara, a graduate student at TrentUniversity in Ontario, has been studying the benefits of emotional intelligence in college students. She fully expected a moderate, positive correlation between EI and academic GPA. But she found no such relationship. Mara tried both of the most popular tests of emotional intelligence. One correlated with GPA at only 0.10; the other came out even worse, at 0.03. (Compare that to the SAT's 0.67).

This is not the first time the hypothesized correlation has gone missing.

I found myself discussing this topic with a writer at my office, and she had an interesting reaction. "Who cares if emotional intelligence correlates with school success or not?" she noted. "That doesn't matter. Because emotional intelligence is important to success in life after kids graduate."

Well, I want to argue that this finding does matter, because it undermines the original theory.

Emotional intelligence was postulated to be an actual intelligence, on par with (or even superior to) other dimensions of intelligence, like abstract reasoning. Emotional intelligence wasn't merely social skills ─ it was supposed to be manifest in the brain with cognitive components.

In the field of intelligence, it's recognized that all valid dimensions of intelligence have at least moderate correlations to each other. Thus, according to the theory, emotional intelligence was expected to modestly correlate with traditional cognitive abilities. This still allowed some wiggle room for each individual person to have his or her relative strengths.

But as Mara and others have discovered, the correlation is so thin that the theory doesn't hold water. Emotional intelligence may not be an "intelligence" after all, but rather just a fancy phrase for adept social skills.

Many schools ─ caught up in the hype ─ have mandated that emotional intelligence be taught in the classroom. But the hours at school are limited. Would you want your child's school to cut back on math class so they can teach social skills?

As we note in the book, studies of prison inmates show they have high emotional intelligence. This suggests the possibility that scholars have poor measurement tools for this construct; perhaps if they got the tool right, it'd predict success better. But the MSCEIT and the EQ-i have been in development for over ten years; at some point, we have to demand emotional intelligence theory live up to its hype.

Personally, I don't doubt that having adept social skills matters to success, especially outside school. But I'm not sure those skills aren't just gained over time, as a grown-up, from dealing with lots of types of people. And I'm not sold they should be classified as an intelligence.

What do you think? When, in your life, did you gain some ability to deal with people?