19 February 2013

Emotional Intelligence … is it or is it not?

As I mentioned in the previous post on Intelligence, in recent years there has been an inflation of types of Intelligence and the one that got the most popular is Emotional Intelligence.

In opposition with General Intelligence (or simply intelligence), the amount of research in the area of Emotional intelligence is not impressively extensive. I’ll come back to this in a couple of paragraphs.

The interesting thing about Emotional Intelligence is that it sounds good. Now, really just say “Emotional Intelligence”. It sounds really good because everything that is emotional has this kind of aura of “coolness” (especially among marketers). Moreover it sounds like some sort of new form of intelligence that is not reserved only to smart people. It sounds more democratic.

These characteristics of Emotional intelligence lead to the fast propagation of the concept in both (pseudo) science and popular culture. What usually happens when a concept becomes very popular very fast is that along the way it becomes very unclear, but no-one acknowledges it.

Let’s put things a bit differently, What is Emotional Intelligence? What does it mean to be Emotionally Intelligent? Probably most answers to these questions go like this “to be emotionally smart” or “to be good with emotions”… in essence the answer is a tautology (which means that we define a bird as being a bird).

If we go back to the simplistic definition of intelligence that I gave in the post about it, namely “Capacity of processing information” and acknowledge that emotions can to a certain extent be considered as information, then we have a rough definition of Emotional intelligence. This rough definition would be the “capacity of processing information in the form of emotions”.

A formal definition is: “Emotional intelligence is a set of abilities that includes the abilities to perceive emotions in the self and in others, use emotions to facilitate performance, understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and regulate emotions in the self and in others (Mayer and Salovey, 1997)” as cited by Côté, S., & Miners, C. T. H. (2006).

Going a bit sideways, I would like to address the issue of why emotions can be considered information. Experiencing emotions is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. Even other species have emotions and act on them. To put things simply, emotions are the primitive response to outside stimuli. We feel fear only in the presence of a threat; we feel disgust in the presence of something potentially harmful etc. So emotions are some sort of information on things around us.

At the same time, expressing emotions is a form of communication. Pioneering research done by Paul Ekman has proven that emotions are universal and so is expressing them through facial expressions. This means that before language developed, our distant ancestors communicated with each-other through expressing emotions.

As we know, the subject of communication is essentially information, thus emotions can be considered as information.

Returning to emotional intelligence and its rudimentary definition of “capacity of processing information in the form of emotions”, we have to see if such a thing actually exists. Let me put things a bit differently. Intelligence in its “conventional” definition refers to processing information in the following forms: verbal (words and expressions), quantitative (numbers and mathematical expressions) and visual-spatial. In order for emotional intelligence to actually exist it has to be distinct from “conventional” intelligence. This means that the ability to process information in the form of emotions has to be distinct from the ability of processing information in the form of words, numbers and visual-spatial.

If the above mentioned abilities are not distinct, then Emotional Intelligence is only another fancy name for the same old thing.

As far as I know, emotional intelligence is somehow distinct from “conventional” intelligence. In a very nice study by Côté & Miners from 2006 the relationship between “conventional” intelligence (IQ), emotional intelligence (EQ) and job performance was investigated. Their conclusion was that for people with a relatively low IQ, EQ had a positive influence on job performance. However, for people with a relatively high IQ, EQ had no influence on job performance.

As I see it, Emotional Intelligence partly overlaps with “conventional” intelligence. In the end intelligence is about processing information and if some people can process better information in the form of emotions and others in the form of numbers that is simply it.

What I find interesting is that people with high IQ get the same results regardless of their EQ. This can be because IQ compensates for EQ.

Before ending, I would like to make two final remarks. First, I believe that the ability to process emotions can be educated to a large extent. For people who are not good at processing information in the form of emotions it can be useful to learn (cognitively) what emotions are and how each of them is expressed.

Second, beware of the noise about Emotional intelligence. As I mentioned earlier, there has been a lot of “buzz” around emotional intelligence and to la large extent the actual meaning of the concept has been severely diluted. One particular aspect that I consider to be critical about emotional intelligence is how we measure it. Because emotional intelligence is an ability or capacity of processing emotions any form of measurement should test that ability through tasks.

A conventional IQ test asks people to give the right answer to a problem. However, some (so called) EQ tests consist of self-reported information or in other words answering questions such as “are you a good negotiator?”. Self-reported data is useful for assessing personality traits, but by far it has nothing to do with assessing abilities.
Note: this post is documented from:
Côté, S., & Miners, C. T. H. (2006). Emotional intelligence, cognitive intelligence, and job performance. Administrative Science Quarterly, 51, 1-28.

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