Emotional intelligence

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There is no such thing as EQ. Let me repeat that: There is NO SUCH THING AS EQ.
Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto[1]

Emotional intelligence (often labelled EQ by those who find acronyms challenging) is typically defined as the ability of an individual to understand emotions and relationships and utilise this knowledge to solve problems. There is a growing body of evidence that EQ is a valid and useful psychological construct, ironically only when it is not conceptualised as an intelligence but as a constellation of personality traits and coping skills. There is a large gap between the scientific and commercial claims of the power of EQ tests.

EQ and its measurement[edit]

There is no clear consensus in the scientific literature on how to define EQ or what the structure of EQ is. Three theories dominate; the first views EQ as a form of intelligence completely unrelated to general intelligence and personality, the second sees EQ as a set of behavioural styles that are closely linked to personality and completely divorced from intelligence, the third sees EQ as a constellation of personality factors (e.g., a combination of conscientiousness and agreeableness). Given the wide range of opinions on the nature of EQ, it is hard to identify one single widely-accepted definition and structure in the scientific literature. However, one acceptable[citation needed] and widely-cited structure of EQ advanced by Peter Salovey (Yale Center of Emotional Intelligence) and John D. Mayer (University of New Hampshire)[2] conceptualises EQ as being made up of three core dimensions: the ability to recognise emotions; the ability to regulate emotions; and the ability to utilise emotions in oneself and others. Most of the many and divergent theories of EQ contain similar or identical concepts to these three dimensions.

Unlike traditional IQ tests, there are no objectively correct answers to EQ tests; furthermore, there is no clear consensus on how EQ should be tested, scored or even what EQ tests measure. This hasn't stopped organisations from seeking to use EQ as a selection tool during recruitment and as a development tool during training. Among these organisations, there are two tests (with at least some theoretical grounding and empirical validity) that are clearly[citation needed] the most popular:

  • the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT)
  • the Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-I)

The good[edit]

So far, the most predictive and powerful EQ tests aren’t actually intelligence tests. EQ research has retreated from claims that EQ reflects an intelligence to claims that it reflects a trait, constellation of personality factors or preferred style of thought. Under this paradigm, researchers have had some very modest success in finding discriminant validity for EQ tests over and above general intelligence and personality measures.[3] However some researchers contend that such modest findings are likely the result of unrelated factors that were not controlled during the experiment.[4]

The studies that have been conducted into the relationship between EQ and work performance generally indicate that EQ has a mixed impact on job performance. (That's right: in some jobs it's good to be less smart).[5] These findings are somewhat contaminated by the finding that any EQ test can be used to positively predict performance despite their contradicting claims about the nature of EQ. There is some suggestion that EQ enables people with low levels of IQ to perform better at work; and these findings have been advanced as a possible explanation for the contradictory findings in the literature.

Recent meta-analyses identify EQ as an important factor for job performance in high-emotion positions and advance further support that EQ, as conceptualised as a set of personality traits and acquired skills, is an important part of work performance.[6] EQ seems to affect performance through mediating factors (such as perceptions of organisational politics) rather than directly influencing work outcomes itself.[7] Although the relationship between EQ and work performance is not clear there is a small body of evidence to suggest it may be a reasonably useful predictor when tested with well validated tools.

The bad[edit]

The MSCEIT measures EQ by asking participants to complete tasks such as judging the relative happiness/anxiety of a person in a picture, or to determine the impact of an action on a person’s emotions. Answers are then compared to the consensus of answers obtained from a norm group and scored negatively for deviations from average responses. The test has been criticised as a measure of conformity rather than intelligence. It has also been criticised because its scoring mechanism means that problems are, by definition, always easy to solve for the majority of the population.[8]

The EQ-I measures EQ through asking participants to self-report whether or not they possess certain traits and abilities. A typical question might ask "I often lose my head when situations become stressful" then give the respondent the option of choosing "not true of me" to "true of me." The EQ-I has been criticised for utilising self-reporting to measure ability and is highly susceptible to "faking good." The obvious problem with asking people to self-report their ability is compounded by the fact that we are typically very poor at determining our own level of ability.

A common criticism of EQ research is that it has moved on to studying the effects of EQ before the question of whether or not it represents a distinct psychological construct has been answered.[9] Studies into EQ often fail to adjust their results to account for participants' level of IQ and personality traits. Analyses of the structure of EQ are often contradictory and remain unreplicated, even for well accepted EQ tests. Furthermore, tests often have very low levels of agreement amongst each other, implying that they are not measuring a consistent, single construct.[10]

The ugly[edit]

Other EQ tests have been constructed, notably by the infamous Daniel Goleman,[11] but, without any research going into their construction and validation, it is unlikely that they are testing anything except the gullibility of the person buying them. Anyone with any faith in the ability of corporations to make good decisions will not want to look too deeply into the amount of sales Goleman has made with his “model” of emotional intelligence.

In general there is a plethora of problems with research into EQ. For a start it contradicts some of our basic understandings about intelligence such as its normality of distribution and inability to be trained or coached. Research into EQ has mainly been conducted using anecdotes or case studies rather than through quantitative methods; probably because as yet there is no satisfactory method to measure EQ. Well conducted quantitative studies that have been conducted typically find that EQ has little explanatory power over IQ and personality, and to make matters worse, EQ appears to be highly correlated with IQ and personality factors. Finally, neurological research has been unable to find any physiological basis for differences in EQ.


It's safe to assume that a happy worker is a good worker, although it is debatable whether it was worth three decades of research and the creation of a ill-defined concept to unearth this ground-breaking discovery. The debate over EQ is mired in semantics and it may be that acknowledging EQ is a skill rather than intelligence would resolve many of the outstanding problems. However, practitioners often fail to understand these subtleties; Daniel Goleman states that EQ is “...as powerful and at times more powerful than IQ”.[12] Clearly the claims of EQ proponents far outstrip the evidence of EQ's efficacy. Research into EQ has found very modest discriminant validity over general intelligence and personality tests; and the predictive power of these tests fades in comparison with general intelligence tests. This has not stopped organisations from spending on EQ tests, or people from claiming that their emotional intelligence makes up for their inability to perform well on actual intelligence tests.