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

by John Mayer

[Continued from Part 2 ]

Statement of My View of EI and the Popular View

Before I go into the advantages of the model of EI I employ, an extremely quick précis of my views on emotional intelligence can help provide a context for those remarks (e.g., Mayer 1997; Mayer & Salovey, 1993; Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2000; Salovey & Mayer, 1990).

My main points are that:

  1. Emotional intelligence is an intelligence, and, as such, a member of a broader family of intelligences including verbal intelligence, perceptual-organizational intelligence, spatial intelligence, social intelligence, and the like.
    • Further, as a member of the intelligences, EI can also be described as a mental ability trait, which means it is part of a broader class of mental capacities that also include creativity, verbal fluency, and possibly, mental absorption of the type necessary for hypnosis.
    • Emotional intelligence, as an intelligence, and more generally as a mental ability, is also part of an even broader group of features or characteristics called personality traits, which include a further group of characteristics such as, for example, optimism-pessimism, extraversion-introversion, motivated-unmotivated, and many others.
  2. Emotional intelligence is one of many factors in an individual’s personality (see “1” above).
  3. Emotional intelligence can act as a positive force in someone’s life, but also as a negative force in some instances (though it will generally be positive).
  4. Emotional intelligence probably accounts for between 1 and 10% of the variance of some focal but important life patterns and outcomes. For example, emotional intelligence correlates negatively with problem behaviors such as fighting and drug use (meaning that as EI goes up, problem behavior goes down). Regarding this point, it is useful to note that most people -- even some psychologists -- don't fully understand or appreciate what the technical phrase "between 1 and 10% of the variance" actually means. That, however, is a matter for another commentary.
  5. There are surely many positive life outcomes unrelated to emotional intelligence.
  6. There are likely a few carefully-specified life outcomes that are more highly predicted by EI than what is described above.
  7. It doesn’t make sense to speak of raising EI per se, but it does make sense to speak of raising emotional knowledge and that may be of help to some people.

Perhaps the best-known alternative description of emotional intelligence comes from Daniel Goleman’s books. I believe those books, particularly the first, provide a lively, engaging reading experience, full of provocative ideas and coverage of excellent research. In those books, Goleman indicates:

  1. Emotional intelligence is a broad description of a major part of an individual’s character and/or personality that includes abilities such as being able: (i) to motivate oneself, (ii) to persist in the face of frustrations, (iii) to control impulses, (vi) to delay gratifications, (vii) to regulate moods, (viii) to keep distress from swamping the ability to think, (ix) to empathize, and (x) to hope. (Goleman, 1995, p. 34). At other times, further characteristics are added, including, (i) to experience enthusiasm, (ii) to feel confident, (iii) to be socially adroit, and (iv) overall, to have good character (Goleman, 1995, pp. 79, 115, 285).
  2. Together, emotional intelligence and cognitive capacities cover most of an individual’s personality (I am inferring this from the fact that all desirable qualities of an individual mentioned in job advertisements could be classified as one or the other (Goleman, 1998, p. 31).
  3. The higher the EI the better (again, this is implied rather than stated).
  4. EI accounts for a great deal of a person’s success in many areas of life.
  5. EI can be readily changed and improved (Goleman, 1995, p. ; 1998, p. 7).*

*Daniel Goleman wrote that he was employing one of our basic descriptions of EI as his own, and modifying it by "expanding these abilities [the one's we described] into five main domains" (Goleman, 1995, p. 43/ see also Chapter 3 footnote 14, p. 189). Although the end result was much broader than our own version, there was some justification for claiming the overlap; see Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2000, p. 401-402 for a discussion.

I greatly appreciate the enthusiasm that Dr. Goleman and others have brought to the subject. I also believe, however, that the more rigorous definition employed here and elsewhere (e.g., Mayer, Caruso, & Salovey, 1999, p. 267; Mayer & Salovey, 1997, p 10) can assist those interested in the topic in three realms: (a) scientific advantages, (b) psycho-educational advantages, and (c) advantages in expanding personal and social growth.

Three Advantages of This Approach

Scientific Advantages

The clear scientific advantage is that the definition of EI to which I subscribe is relatively clear, uniform, and consistent. It is amenable to ability-based measurement. It is consistent with psychological terminology as it presently exists in the field.

The general concept has been stable since my original papers with Peter Salovey in 1990 and 1993. The specific, revised model we now employ, introduced in 1997, has remained the same for six years. (This is important because it illustrates that we do not have to change our formulation of the concept to fit different research results; rather, what we say about EI pertains to the same EI throughout). From here on out we expect to change it only based on findings from empirical research. This concept of EI is largely distinct and discrete relative to other psychological features of an individual. That makes it possible to study, and to study as a distinct phenomenon.

Psychoeducational Advantages

Psychoeducational advantages refer to those advantages that pertain to discussing, testing, and/or teaching another person about emotional intelligence. First, the full theory of emotional intelligence we have promulgated is sufficiently logical to appeal and make sense as much to an engineer as to an artist. Even someone who does not possess high EI is able to recognize its description as reasonable, logical, and, arguably, a standard intelligence.

The psychoeducational advantages of this approach, however, can be seen in the following hypothetical communication over a test of EI. Here is one way I would imagine one can discuss a test of EI with a person being tested.

  1. We want to respect the complexity of your personality. EI is one, specific part of personality, amidst many others. Your personality is too sophisticated and individual to be encapsulated by one feature, or even 10 features. That said, we can’t look at all the parts of personality at once, so, today, let’s consider this one: Emotional intelligence.
  2. EI plays an important function in the mind. It allows people to think about and understand their feelings, as well as to use their feelings to enhance thought. It serves as a sort of bridge between two quite different realms: Intellectual functioning, on the one hand, and emotional activity, on the other.
  3. EI has been found to be a useful predictor of certain life outcomes. Generally speaking, a high EI means that a person may create smoother, closer personal relationships; a lower EI sometimes leads to problematic social behavior, including more interpersonal conflict.
  4. It is important to note, regarding point 3 above -- the predictions from EI -- that individuals will vary. That is, the statement in “3” is a statistical statement and refers to averages, and it is not a definite pronouncement about anyone. For example, a person high in EI may use it to emotionally manipulate others, leading to poor interpersonal relations. Or, a person low in EI may be very polite and cooperative, and use that politeness (in place of EI) to smooth social conduct.

So why look at EI? For the reason that we look at any feature of our mental life/personality, because it tells us something about ourselves we didn’t know before. By looking at these parts one by one when the opportunities arise, a person gradually gains knowledge of him or herself. One’s model of oneself becomes more accurate, and some people can use that increased accuracy in self knowledge to make better life choices.

When I imagine what advocates of the popular version of EI are saying to people -- that is, that EI is everything cognitive ability is not, that it accounts for 80% of success in life, and the like, I worry a lot about how the test-taker might respond. To my mind that information is highly misleading and potentially dangerous. The above information, portions of which are tailored to the scientific model which my colleagues and I have developed, is accurate and, I think, as a consequence, a reasonable and mostly helpful communication.

Expansive Advantages

By expansive advantages, I mean that the model I am recommending allows a person to keep exploring and understanding more and more about him or herself (or others). It may seem paradoxical to say that a focused model such as I am discussing here is more expansive than a popular notion of EI that describes it as a huge part of character, but I would claim this model is, indeed, far more flexible. Consider a model in which EI (or EI together with cognitive skills) is everything; what’s left? Not much to talk about except cognitive skills.

By contrast, if we view EI as a single, coherent entity with defined subareas (four branches in our model), then we can move in and out of a consideration of it, along with other features of personality. Let me return, at this point, to one of Josh’s examples:

We’ve watched executives destroy the work of lifetimes because they are too uncomfortable with emotions to have honest dialogue...

Is this a failure of EI (as I define it)? It quite possibly could be. The executive may have found honest dialogue difficult because when people expressed their emotions, he or she was unable to understand what those people meant, unable to relate it to his or her own life, and/or unable to understand what emotional changes might be possible.

On the other hand, let’s say we give the executive an EI test, and he scores well on it. Well, the expansive part of this model is that we have now ruled that out low EI as an explanation for the trouble, so it is possible to go on to other alternatives. For example, we might want to ask whether, given that the person can adequately think about emotions (e.g., has high EI), he or she is simply overwhelmed by his or her emotions. This is called, “emotionality” and sometimes “neuroticism,” and it is both theoretically and empirically distinct from EI in this model.

Or perhaps the executive has a normal level of EI, but is, generally speaking, low in honesty. The executive may be naturally exploitative and have a life philosophy that telling other people lies is often beneficial -- if not for them, at least for him or her. In this case, we have another problem entirely. I’m not sure it would have much effect, but one could point out that a lack of honesty, in this case, was interfering with his or her interpersonal relationships.

The above description might lead to a consideration of several parts of personality -- EI, emotionality, and honesty. Ultimately, some possible cause for the destructive pattern of behavior might be revealed (or not). This is the expansive part of my viewpoint. By using a focused and accurate definition of EI, we can distinguish and differentiate it, and that allows us to consider other important aspects of the person. That means we respect the person as a complex individual and really try to understand what is causing a particular dilemma.

Altogether, I believe these personality features: EI, emotionality, honesty, and dozens more, each has a deep and profound influence on how a person behaves and lives. I think there is something very deep (and also superficially obvious) here, and I am quite happy to spend my time researching the issues involved.


So, is EI important? Yes, in several ways. First, if EI exists (and we believe we have provided sufficient evidence to indicate it does), it adds to our understanding of the ways in which people think and reason. In addition, it allows for good, replicable predictions of important outcomes. To see what we now believe EI predicts, see the “validity” section of the 2004 Psychological Inquiry article posted in the reprints section of this site. So EI is important. So are many of the personality variables with which it co-exists, and which also influence an individual’s outcomes in life.


Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Goleman, D. (1998). Working with Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Mayer, J. D., Caruso, D., & Salovey, P. (1999). Emotional intelligence meets traditional standards for an intelligence. Intelligence, 27, 267-298.

Mayer, J. D., & Salovey, P. (1993). The intelligence of emotional intelligence. Intelligence, 17(4), 433-442.

Mayer, J. D. & Salovey, P. (1997). What is emotional intelligence? In P. Salovey & D. Sluyter (Eds). Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence: Implications for Educators (pp. 3-31). New York: Basic Books.

Mayer, J. D., Salovey, P., & Caruso, D. R. (2000). Models of emotional intelligence. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.). Handbook of Intelligence (pp. 396-420). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Salovey, P. & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9, 185-211.