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Controversies in Emotional Intelligence

Controversies Include...

Exchange Posted 2004.

Acknowledgement:  Joshua Freedman read an earlier draft of this piece. His comments in response helped me strengthen the writing, and I am grateful for his assistance. The views expressed are my own.

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

Part 2: What Are the Advantages of a More Focused Approach to EI?

by John Mayer

[Continued from Part 1 ]

Central Points of Joshua Freedman's Response

In a commentary on this web site regarding claims about EI, I argued that the popularization had seriously and strongly overstated the power of EI – although I hasten to add that EI is an important variable. Joshua Freedman’s comments on my original commentary painted a qualitative picture of the importance of EI. He writes, in regard to the potential importance of having low EI:

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.  We’ve experienced the friend or family member whose fears and shames spiral into guilt-laden arrogance or self-indulgent misery.

He also offers a contrasting picture of the high EI individual:

…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.

One of the purposes of becoming a psychologist, for me, was surely to learn how to help people avoid the sorts of problems in social behavior that Josh talks about, and to help them capitalize on the more positive parts of their personalities. Josh does a superb job of conveying the yearning for these possibilities. I share these concerns and aspirations, yet I see a risk in attributing all this to EI. Later I will explain how a more focused definition of EI can actually help meet these challenges.

Toward the end of his piece, Josh raises some important questions:

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?

The Issue of Being Let Down

Josh’s comments reflect a more general theme: People have told me they feel let down by my statements that emotional intelligence will not provide all the answers we need to help people behave in a better way. This disappointment is, I think, understandable in the face of what the popular claims have promised. The popularized version(s) of emotional intelligence seemed to promise that emotional intelligence might be the variable that could help explain a number of problems, and ameliorate people’s lives in a number of different areas (see the first installment of this discussion).

Those who put their faith in such statements, or simply hoped such statements might be true, could not help but feel let down by what I have said on the matter. Still, I would rather have people disappointed by my realism than disappointed by emotional intelligence. One purpose of my continued work in the field has been to help people form a clear understanding of this concept. (Another, related, purpose is to help people measure the concept accurately).

Compensating Virtues of This Approach

My focus thus far – on responding to popular claims – has meant that I have not had time to explain the positive aspects of the message I am trying, most conscientiously, to convey to those interested in emotional intelligence. It is the positive part of the message I would like to focus on in the remainder of these comments.

[Go To Part 3 ]