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Controversies in Emotional Intelligence

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Comment Posted 2004.

Is EI the Best Predictor of Success in Life?

by John D. Mayer

Editor's Note: Joshua Freedman responded to this post with, "Have the originators of EI missed the point...?" -- also posted in this section of the site.

When the concept of emotional intelligence was popularized, a number of claims for it were made.

Daniel Goleman’s (1995) popularization began with some carefully-couched suggestions about the power of EI and its potential for prediction in life. Those claims also reflected some considerable optimism:

No one can yet say exactly how much of the variability from person to person in life's course it accounts for. But what data exist suggest it can be as powerful, and at times more powerful, than IQ. (Goleman, 1995, p. 34).

The claims were featured on the U.S. edition's cover, which apparently added the phrase "Why it can matter more than IQ," to the book's title. (That is, the phrase appears to be a subtitle, but it was not actually the subtitle to the book).

Upon release of Goleman's book, Time Magazine ran a cover story on emotional intelligence.


The quote on the bottom left read:

It's not your IQ. Its not even a number. But emotional intelligence may be the best predictor of success in life, redefining what it means to be smart. (Time, October 2nd, 1995, cover).

This is an amusingly self-contradictory statement. On the one hand, the statement indicates that EI can’t be quantified ("Its not even a number"). On the other hand, the author(s) blithely go on to make quantitative claims for the concept (i.e., "the best predictor of success...").

Dr. Salovey and I had published our review article, "Emotional Intelligence" in 1990, and a demonstration of how emotional intelligence could be measured as well (Mayer & Salovey, 1990; Salovey & Mayer, 1990). In 1993 we published a further article entitled, "The Intelligence of Emotional Intelligence" (Mayer & Salovey, 1993). My colleagues and I made no such claims about the power of EI in those articles -- or in any of the many articles we have published since. In fact, we have tried to explain why such claims are unrealistic in a number of ways.

A general outline of what we believe can be found in a "Shared Perspectives" column in the APA Newsletter, the Monitor.

Mayer, J. D. (September, 1999). Emotional Intelligence: Popular or scientific psychology? APA Monitor, 30, 50. [Shared Perspectives column] Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

The general outline, however, does not by itself convey the full logic behind why claims such as, "EI might be the best predictor of succes in life," are unrealistic. For that reason, we have provided more careful analyses of what such claims mean, and why they are unlikely to be true.

To better understand how we understand certain claims about EI, you might want to take a look at the following two-page excerpt. Start reading in the second column with the paragraph beginning, "A third approach..." (For the full chapter, see the "Reprints of Articles" link on the index of this site.)

Pages 402-403 of 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.

To see our continued critique of these ideas in the same chapter click below and begin reading, again at the bottom of the second column, with "Misplaced Excitement..."

Pages 411-413 of 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.

While we were writing the above critique, further claims arose that were different from those above. A critique of those claims can be found in the brief excerpt of the article below:

Pages 174-176 of Mayer, J. D., & Cobb, C. D. (2000). Educational policy on emotional intelligence: Does it make sense? Educational Psychology Review, 12, 163-183.

Happily, fewer people in the field are now making these claims about emotional intelligence. There appears to be a more realistic approach to the field, and a willingness to see what the research says. The real live facts of emotional intelligence are quite encouraging -- that is, it does seem to predict important outcomes. If those predictive levels are far from the levels that some of the claims above suggested, they are still of considerable practical and conceptual importance.