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Controversies in Emotional Intelligence

Controversies Include...

Exchange Posted 2004.

Have the Originators of EI Missed the Point of their Own Research?

Part 1: The Problem

Editor's Note: Joshua Freedman's commentary begins with a reference to, "Is EI the most important predictor of success in life?" -- a posting in the "Controversies" section of this web site. Joshua's comments are posted with his permission.

While John Mayer’s point is scientifically sound — clearly there is no research yet that proves EI or EQ is the single most important predictor of life success — perhaps there is more to EQ than its originators have considered.

I’ve heard both David Caruso and Peter Salovey suggest that the popular excitement over “EQ” was largely due to timing (and Daniel Goleman’s ability to promote this fascinating idea).  Coming on the heels of The Bell Curve with its implications of racial supremacy and genetically determined destiny, Goleman’s 1995 book offered a humanistic alternative.  The message the “EQ predicts success, and unlike IQ, EQ can be learned” was the perfect antidote to The Bell Curve.  This is a reasonable explanation, but I find it insufficient to explain the global surge of interest in emotional intelligence — so perhaps there’s more?

Instead I suggest the notion of emotional intelligence answers an essential, primal longing.  It meets a fundamental need at this point in human evolution.  “At a gut level” it is evident that emotions drive people.  No one who’s attempted a challenging conversation with their boss, or raised a child, can deny that emotions are one of the most powerful forces in human interaction.  And if there is an intelligence we can develop to grapple with this intangible force of nature, we suddenly are at liberty to achieve our highest intentions.

Perhaps even more viscerally, millions of people have experienced first hand the depredations of poor use of emotions.  We’ve experienced the friend or family member whose fears and shames spiral into guilt-laden arrogance or self-indulgent misery.  We’ve watched executives destroy the work of lifetimes because they are too uncomfortable with emotions to have honest dialogue.  We’ve experienced the global malaise that’s an inevitable result of leaders who can’t manage their feelings of pride and insecurity and greed.  So while there may not be scientific validity to the claim that “emotional intelligence is the best predictor of success in life,” we’ve all seen how a lack of emotional intelligence destroys so many kinds of success.

Conversely, many of us have first-hand experience of the stunning delight that arises when we feel a powerful emotional connection to another person or team.  We’ve done the impossible simply because it felt good to do so, because our emotions and spirits became engaged in meeting a challenge.  We’ve seen the awesome power of someone whose self-awareness, integrity, and authenticity inspires near-endless trust and commitment.  And we want more.

So perhaps these essential emotional needs and drives are something other than the scientifically sound construct called “emotional intelligence.”  Or, perhaps the EI researchers stumbled across something deeper and more powerful than they yet understand.  It may be that “emotional intelligence predicts only a small part of success,” or perhaps we need to ask if that which is currently measurable and understandable is but the tip of the iceberg?  Maybe emotional intelligence is the best predictor of success in life, and our scholarly colleagues now have the challenge of proving it.

Joshua Freedman is Director of Program, Six Seconds EQ Network
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[Go To Part 2 ]