Promotional intelligence

When the two scientists who invented the concept of emotional intelligence loaned the idea to New York Times science writer Daniel Goleman, they never dreamed it would become a cottage industry.

Topics: Academia, John Mayer, Psychology, College, Books,

If success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan, some
brainchildren are more like foster kids: Proud parents bring their
intellectual offspring into the world, only to see them raised by
someone else. That’s been the fate of emotional intelligence, an idea that was
born in academia but came of age in the public eye.
The adoptive parent, in this case, is science journalist Daniel Goleman. His
book, “Emotional Intelligence,” hit the bookstores in 1995, with ambitious
claims trumpeted on its cover. “The groundbreaking book that redefines what
it means to be smart” promised to reveal why emotional intelligence “can
matter more than IQ.” In a chapter titled “When Smart Is Dumb,” Goleman explained that “there are widespread exceptions to
the rule that IQ predicts success — many (or more) exceptions than cases
that fit the rule,” adding that “one of psychology’s open secrets is the
relative inability of grades, IQ or SAT scores, despite their popular
mystique, to predict unerringly who will succeed in life.”

To drive this point home, Goleman recounted the story of a straight-A
student who stabbed his teacher over a low grade. “People with high IQs,” he
concluded, “can be stunningly poor pilots of their personal lives.” More
critical to success, he suggested, are the skills of self-awareness, empathy
and sociability associated with another, “emotional” kind of intelligence.

After a decade of watching Bill Gates and other members of the high-tech
clique exact a real-life revenge of the nerds, and following the
consternation caused by “The Bell Curve,” which claimed that IQ permanently
fixed our social station, America was primed for a philosophy centered on
something other than our analytic intelligence. Soon after its release,
“Emotional Intelligence” began climbing the bestseller lists, where it
reigned for months. (“Working With Emotional Intelligence,” a follow-up book
published three years later, also sold robustly.)



Yet if the book touched a sensitive chord among readers, answering some
deeply felt anxiety about their intellectual abilities, Goleman was no
anti-intellectual pundit arguing that the bookish have nothing to teach us. In fact, his was a pro-thinker’s fable. A Harvard Ph.D. and science
writer for the New York Times, Goleman staked the claims of his work on academic research. In the wake of the book’s success, his reputation as a true booster of scholarly learning only grew.

While pop psychology tracts on emotion could provide only “well-intentioned advice based at best on clinical opinion but lacking
much, if any, scientific basis,” he wrote, “science is finally able to
speak with authority to these urgent and perplexing questions of the psyche
at its most irrational, to map with some precision the human heart.”

Was this simply a PR move aimed at distinguishing his product from
the competition? Or had Goleman in fact discovered an intellectual
diamond in the rough that simply needed his polished prose to
make it popular?

Emotional intelligence did indeed originate in academe, and there
are the beginnings of a scientific literature on the subject. Yet while Goleman drew on the prestige of academia, he failed to adhere to its scrupulousness. The original theory only has a nodding acquaintance with the version
presented in Goleman’s book. As a result, “The public’s
definition of emotional intelligence has now become completely different
from the academic definition,” says John Mayer, the University of New
Hampshire psychologist who, with Yale’s Peter Salovey, first formally
defined the term 10 years ago.

Of course, all ideas change as they migrate from the narrow confines of the
ivory tower to the wide-open arena of public discourse. What is interesting
is how this particular concept changed — and how the ways in which it
changed contributed directly to its overwhelming popularity. On the way to
becoming a bestselling book, and then a super-heated trend in the nation’s
business and educational establishments, an intriguing if modest academic
idea was transformed into a slice of the late-20th century’s
singular Zeitgeist.

Its beginnings were humble enough. In the summer of 1987 Salovey, who’d just
bought his first house, asked his friend and colleague Mayer to help him
paint the living room. Shop talk turned to emotions research, an area in
which the two had previously collaborated, and then to current work
on intelligence. The fields were traditionally regarded as separate, even
opposed, but now the psychologists wondered if there weren’t points of
intersection. “Maybe it was the paint fumes,” Mayer jokes.

Maybe, but inspiration lasted long enough to publish two articles on
the topic in 1990 and another in 1993. Their thesis was simple: Though
frequently conceived as opposites, emotions and intellect often work in
concert, each enhancing the other. “Our ability to engage in the highest
levels of thought isn’t limited to intellectual pursuits like calculus,”
Mayer contends. “It also includes reasoning and abstracting about feelings.
And that means that among those people that we refer to as warm-hearted or
romantic or fuzzy — or whatever sometimes-demeaning expressions we use —
there are some who are engaging in very, very sophisticated information
processing. This type of reasoning is every bit as formal as that used in
solving syllogisms.”

The exchange also flows in the other direction: Emotions sometimes enrich
thought. Here the psychologists draw on research showing that the experience
of strong feeling may help us perceive fresh alternatives, make better
choices and, paradoxically, maintain an even emotional keel. After all,
“Why would we have evolved such a complex and interesting system if it’s not
adaptive, if it didn’t help us?” asks Salovey about emotions. “Why do we have
to think of emotions as interfering with cognition? Why not look for ways in
which people are even more rational because they have emotions?”

As he and Mayer explain it, we each experience countless interactions
between intelligence and emotion, but only some of them make us smarter. This
smaller subset constitutes what they refer to as emotional intelligence, and
its effects are subtle but potentially profound. Emotional intelligence could
make the difference between a conventional decision and a daring one, between
a stilted speech and one that soars — or, in the psychologists’ whimsical
example, “between constructing the Brooklyn Bridge, with its renowned beauty,
and the more mundane 59th Street Bridge.”

Their articles didn’t attract much notice; even their most impressive effort,
a 1990 paper that reviewed all relevant literature and set out their first
definition of emotional intelligence, was rarely cited in the five years
after it appeared. It did, however, come to the attention of Goleman.
“I read the title and was struck by the phrase, by the power of bringing
together two seemingly unconnected and even antithetical concepts,” Goleman
says now. “I thought it was an extraordinarily powerful way of talking about
the nature of emotional life.”

He had already begun working on a book about emotions, and he asked Salovey
if he could borrow their theoretical model and its name. “Fine,” said the
psychologist. “Just tell people where you heard it.”

That was in 1992. Three years later, “Emotional Intelligence” arrived in
stores. Psychology books — especially those that aren’t explicitly
self-help — usually don’t sell in great volume, and Goleman’s expectations
were modest. “I thought, well, my son is going to go to college,” he
remembers. “Maybe I can do a proposal for a follow-up book and get it sold
before the publisher knows how well ‘Emotional Intelligence’ did.” No such
sleight of hand was necessary, of course. The book went on to be one of
Bantam’s biggest bestsellers in recent memory, with more than a million
copies in print (and almost 5 million copies worldwide).

If its author was surprised by the success of “Emotional Intelligence,”
the original researchers were amazed. But their initial thrill at the book’s celebrity soon gave way to dismay. Goleman had distorted their model in disturbing ways. He portrayed the emotionally intelligent person as one possessing all the qualities of a nice person — kind, warm and friendly — while the researchers focused far more on the fluid interplay between emotions and intelligence. Goleman greatly expanded the boundaries of emotional intelligence, including in it a range of qualities, like zeal and persistence, not usually associated with emotion. He equated high emotional intelligence with “maturity” and “character,” a correspondence that Salovey and Mayer
vehemently resisted. And he made sweeping claims for the construct, including
the cover-worthy assertion that our emotional intelligence predicts our success
more accurately than IQ.

Upon seeing the book, and especially the comparison to IQ, Mayer says that
his first reaction was: “This is not the case, this isn’t true.” Then he
thought, “Uh-oh, I hope it wasn’t our fault.”

Mayer and Salovey reviewed the emotional intelligence literature, including their own articles, and concluded that Goleman was indeed playing fast and loose with the research. Goleman contends he saw no need to hew closely to the original model. “I was using it as a heuristic device,” he explains, not a blueprint. When he writes about scientific theories, he says, his responsibility is to the lay readership as well as to “the eight people who are the specialists who really know.” And in any case, he adds, he did the concept a favor. “An academic idea can basically be a good idea, a sound idea, but get no attention. A kind of fluke took this idea from oblivion into international
prominence,” he says. “I was the fluke.”

There is nothing incidental, however, about the reasons why “Emotional
Intelligence” captivated the American public. Tapping a deep vein of distrust of all things intellectual, the book brims with anecdotes about people like “Cecil,” a “college-trained expert in foreign languages, superb at translating,” who nevertheless “would muff a casual conversation over coffee, and fumble when having to give the time of day,” who in short “seemed incapable of the most routine social exchange.”

He is contrasted with those who were never stellar students but who succeed
because they are relaxed, sociable, and friendly: a sort of Revenge of the
Jocks. In a line reminiscent of a “you’ll work for us someday” football
cheer, Goleman approvingly quotes the eminent intelligence theorist Howard
Gardner: “Many people with IQs of 160 work for people with IQs of 100, if the
former have poor intrapersonal intelligence and the latter have a high one.”

Yet there’s something a little incongruous about Goleman and Gardner,
a former and a current member of the Harvard faculty respectively, reveling
in the triumph of the C student. The book’s just-folks intellectual populism is especially appropriate to this cultural moment, when a brand-new bogeyman has arrived on the scene: the geek with lots of intelligence but precious little social skill. Such nervousness is evident in a joke recounted in Goleman’s book: “What do you call a nerd 15 years from now?” The answer: “Boss.” Who wouldn’t like to think that Mr. Nice Guy has something on Mr. Gates?

But by focusing on personality traits rather than specific interactions
between emotions and intelligence, Goleman undermines the book’s claims to scientific accuracy. Scientists have not yet proven that emotional intelligence predicts anything at all, or even that it is a discrete quantity, distinguishable from general intelligence; the construct is too new. But they
have exhaustively studied personality traits like agreeableness and
extraversion, and it’s a confirmed fact that such qualities, though awfully
nice to have in an employee or co-worker, bear no relationship to career
success — even in fields, like sales, where one might expect them to be
crucial.

In its upbeat message that it’s congeniality and not sheer smarts that wins the
day, the book breaks little new ground. Therein lies another reason behind
its popularity: It has the familiar flavor of conventional wisdom, or at least
conventional wishful thinking. And though some might read “Emotional
Intelligence” with the intention of increasing their emotional skills, no
doubt many bought the book to vindicate the importance of their own
emotional profiles. In either case, the book gained its fame not in its
endorsement of “nice” but in its claim that “nice matters most” — the
very claim that Salovey and Mayer dispute so strongly.

“The claims made for emotional intelligence were unrelated to anything we
have ever claimed,” Mayer states flatly. In particular, the assertion that
emotional intelligence is more valuable than IQ in predicting success “is
nothing that you will ever find in anything we wrote.” Goleman arrived at
that conclusion himself — and the methods he used to get there are
distinctly unscientific.

Goleman often focused on a particular group of people — in one case,
scientists at Bell Laboratories; in another, “Harvard graduates in the fields
of law, medicine, teaching and business.” Tests of their intellectual ability, Goleman triumphantly informs us, bear no relationship to their later career performance. Yes, but: Harvard students and top-flight scientists have
already been painstakingly selected for their braininess. In order to give
the proposition a fair test, says Salovey, you’d have to follow the careers
of a group that included “people who are severely mentally retarded and
people who are average and people who are geniuses, Albert Einsteins.” IQ,
Goleman tells us, is merely a “threshold competence” — just a foot in the
door — but at such penthouse heights it’s a threshold very few will have the
opportunity to cross.

Another approach, which Goleman employs in “Working With Emotional
Intelligence,” is to examine the “competence models” — the personal
qualifications for a particular job that might appear in a help wanted
ad — for 181 positions. He classified the abilities listed in each job
description as cognitive- or emotion-related, and discovered that 67 percent
fell into the latter category. Thus, he concludes, “compared to IQ and
expertise, emotional competence mattered twice as much.” Of course, there’s
no guarantee that what a manager values actually bears any exact relationship to what makes that employee a success.

Until we can accurately measure emotional intelligence, we can’t legitimately compare its predictive powers to those of IQ. Most emotional intelligence tests use self-report measures, which, as Salovey notes, is like an intelligence tests that asks, “Do you think you’re pretty smart?” He and Mayer are in the midst of developing an ability-based measure, which rates the test-taker’s emotional intelligence according to how well she describes the mood of a piece of music, for example, or anticipates the reaction of a character in a story.

But the claim that emotional intelligence predicted success was only part of Goleman’s vision; he also offered evidence of its effect on nearly every area of life. Over the small circle of interactions Salovey and Mayer identified, Goleman pitched a big tent, inviting in everything from “conscientiousness” to “innovation” to “political awareness” — 25 “emotional competencies” in all, as enumerated in his second book on the subject. Though such expansiveness made the idea attractive to a wider audience, it also stretched it so thin as to render it meaningless.

“Anything that isn’t analytic IQ that would help a person get along in the world, particularly the world of work, is now called emotional intelligence,” observes Salovey. “The concept loses its focus and in many ways loses its power when it’s anything and everything.” Even Howard Gardner, who first proposed the idea of “multiple intelligences,” warned in a recent Atlantic Monthly article that “stretching the band” of our definition of intelligence to include qualities like motivation and attention may cause it to snap entirely.

The reasons why “Emotional Intelligence” appealed so deeply to American readers
lay in a book published a year earlier: “The Bell Curve.” Goleman himself
conceived his book as a reply, in part, to Richard Herrnstein and Charles
Murray’s infamous assertion that a largely immutable IQ determines one’s
social class. “Emotional Intelligence” offered “a very helpful message,
because these skills are learnable,” says Goleman; it was “an antidote at the
time to the taste in the mouth left by ‘The Bell Curve,’” which was, as he
delicately puts it, “a downer.”

But if Goleman meant to knock IQ off its gilded perch, his book in some ways
did just the opposite. By positioning emotional intelligence as its rival and
by imitating its various trappings (in a magazine article written shortly
after the book was published, Goleman even offered a test of one’s “EQ”), he
simply reaffirmed IQ’s continued primacy as the standard by which we define intelligence.

He also missed the opportunity to raise an important question: Why must we call something an intelligence in order to value it? Salovey says he and Mayer labeled their set of interactions an intelligence “to be provocative, to really challenge this idea that emotions are irrational,” but there’s no doubt that calling it thus also romanced America’s love-hate relationship with the cerebral.

Not only individuals but also institutions fell hard for emotional
intelligence. Some 700 schools around the country are considering programs
based on the concept, and almost two dozen have already put them into
practice, including the school districts covering all of New Haven,
Conn., and the entire state of Rhode Island. And thousands of
businesses nationwide have instituted emotional intelligence programs: A
recent study by the American Society for Training and Development found that
four out of five companies reported that they are doing something to try to raise the emotional intelligence of their employees.

For institutions — both schools and workplaces — that are struggling to accommodate increasingly diverse populations, emotional intelligence training appears to be just what the administrator ordered. By emphasizing character and moral fiber, emotional intelligence training promises to deliver results while bypassing troublesome systems of belief entirely. We all have emotions, after all, and what could be wrong with learning to use them well? Writes Goleman, soothingly, “There is an old-fashioned word for the body of skills that emotional intelligence represents: character.”

But intelligences are not virtues: They are merely aptitudes, plastic
abilities that can be used for good or ill. “Just because somebody has these
emotion-related skills doesn’t mean that they’ll put them to good use,” notes
Salovey. “The charismatic cult leader might be very good at these emotion-related skills — regulating their own emotions, reading other people’s
feelings, and all of that. That’s why they become cult leaders, and that’s
why other people follow them. But that doesn’t mean they have good character.
The used-car salesman, who is great at figuring out what you’re all about and
selling you a car — is that good character? I don’t think so.”

While Slovey and Mayer are uncomfortable with the new incarnation of emotional intelligence, the theory, they are more disquieted by “Emotional Intelligence,” the cottage industry. Though it’s intrusive to instruct any captive audience on something so personal as the proper way to handle feelings, such training raises particular questions in regard to children, vulnerable both because of their youth and their inability to escape. Salovey and Mayer contend that such programs often take a simplistic “emotions are good” stance, while at the same time suggesting that there is a single “right” way of dealing with them. Should a child from a minority ethnic or religious group be forced to engage in trust-building activities with classmates who tease him? Should kids from abusive homes feel compelled to “share their feelings” with the entire class?

Goleman doesn’t acknowledge that social ills like racism or sexism or poverty might complicate such training. Instead, he suggests that these EQ programs will help stamp them out. If managers and workers can learn to speak out against racial prejudice “with all the finesse of an effective criticism,” for example, then “bias incidents are more likely to fall away.” If girls learned “to distinguish anger from anxiety from hunger,” Goleman intimates, we would see fewer cases of eating disorders.

Worse, Goleman’s approach risks suggesting that these are individual
problems, to be solved individually. That perspective is implicit in his
oft-repeated finding that emotional intelligence-related skills are several
times as important as IQ and technical expertise in distinguishing mediocre
employees from “stars.” The lesson is clear: Companies are already rewarding emotional intelligence in those who have it — so the onus lies with those who don’t. Goleman’s can-do attitude, while appealingly optimistic, dismisses how difficult it is for a single student to succeed in a failing school, or for one worker to bring warmth and humanity to an impersonal corporation.

The public that embraced “Emotional Intelligence” has heard little about these
caveats — while the book made the cover of Time, Mayer notes ruefully that only his local newspaper carried mention of his objections. The popular conception of emotional intelligence has almost completely eclipsed the academic one, and Goleman is its beaming daddy. The CEO of Emotional Intelligence Services and co-chairman of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, Goleman has refashioned himself from author into cottage industry. When asked if he’s going to write a third book about emotional intelligence, he heaves a sigh. “I don’t know. I’m too busy,” he says. “I’ve become really sought after as a speaker all over the world.”

And why should we be surprised? Goleman speaks in the bland, polished
language of business, which is increasingly our national tongue: Phrases like
“human assets” and “leveraging diversity” dot his conversation. He displays
no discomfort with the calculations of commerce: “Social skill is friendliness with a purpose: moving people in the direction you desire,” as he writes in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. He’s at ease promoting himself, and effective at it, too. “There’s a phrase they use in the business world, which I had never really heard before: Apparently, what I am is a ‘thought leader’” says Goleman. “The guy who’s articulating the concept and encouraging people to pay attention to it — that’s my role.”

Salovey and Mayer, on the other hand, speak a more diffident and complicated language, full of qualifications and conditionals. “When I wrote with Peter, when Peter wrote with me,” Mayer says, not wanting to commandeer credit for any part of their collaboration. After a long explanation of his research, he draws a deep breath and concludes, “I should have prefaced all that by saying, if emotional intelligence does indeed exist.”

Even within the scientific community, Salovey and Mayer’s articles have been overshadowed by the book: Goleman says he gets “two or three inquiries a day” from graduate students around the world who want to study emotional intelligence.

Remarkably, the two scientists remains good-natured about Goleman’s runaway success. “If I’d known it was going to be this wildly popular,” Salovey says with a laugh, “I would have been much more motivated to write such a book myself.” Though they worry about the disappointment they fear will follow in the wake of the book’s extravagant claims, they acknowledge that they can’t control how their ideas will be used.

In any case, their real concern lies with the academic reputation of emotional intelligence. “What I would like to see is something lasting in the scientific literature,” says Mayer. Whether he’ll get his wish is an open question. At least one article, by University of Sydney psychologist Lazar Stankov and his student Michaela Davies, has concluded that emotional intelligence exists at best in a very limited form. Saying that his work “casts doubt on the whole area of emotional intelligence,” Stankov delivers a casually devastating assessment: “Like psychoanalysis, it can provide a nice topic for after-dinner conversation, but nothing more.”

Still, his is just one paper, and hardly definitive. Other researchers have found strong support for Salovey and Mayer’s work, and the two psychologists themselves continue to develop and refine their thesis. All those eager graduate students contacting Daniel Goleman will likely produce a bumper crop of research over the next few years, so that anyone judging the validity of emotional intelligence will soon have much more to study.

Until then, the idea will yield as many questions as answers, the most significant of which may be one posed by Mayer in his latest, yet-to-be-published paper. Before we can predict success, he points out, we have to define it. Is it making it to the top of your profession? Is it earning the love of friends and family? Is it the possession of an inner sense of calm and contentment? For all their charts and graphs, that’s a quantity that scientists haven’t yet begun to measure.

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