Mr. Personality

A personality expert talks character and destiny.

Time to Re-think EQ?

Redefining emotional intelligence

As a personality psychologist, I have always been a firm advocat of EQ (emotional intelligence), not least because the EQ movement has done more to put the discussion of personality on the table than any other movement. 

Although EQ started as an antidote to IQ (academic intelligence), its contribution to psychology has been much wider, namely to highlight - over and over again - the importance of "soft" skills (AKA personality) in ever domain of life: work, relationships, health, etc. 

But, as Oscar Wilde once noted, "everything popular is wrong"... and the increased popularity of EQ has led to a number of misconceptions and unfounded assertions about what emotional competence really entails. In particular, given that EQ has been hijacked by the positive psychology movement it has become customary to interpret EQ along the lines of spiritual competence and assume that higher EQ is always advantageous, and, by the same token, that there are no real benefits associated with lower emotional intelligence - as if lower EQ were indeed as problematic as lower IQ.

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It is time to re-evaluate the notion of EQ, taking into account the following facts:

1) After 15 years of scientific debate there is at last great consensus on the idea that EQ is best conceptualized as a dimension of personality. What this means is that (a) EQ refers to pretty stable or consistent patterns of behavior, thought, and emotion; (b) EQ can be assessed via valid personality inventories, such as psychometric self-reports (and scores on these tests predict how others are likely to evalue you, and how you will behave in the future); (c) EQ is largely independent of IQ (which does not mean that high IQ scorers have low EQs); and (d) EQ can be explained by a bunch of generic personality scales, especially Adjustment (see next point).

2) High Adjustment (low Neuroticism) is almost identical to EQ, with typical correlations in the region of .5 to .7. If we take into account measurement error, these substantial correlations suggest that most measures of EQ have just relabelled low Neuroticism or high Adjustment as EQ. This is also consistent with the original definition of EQ, which emphasized "the ability to manage one's own and others' emotions", which is by and large what Adjustment and Neuroticism assess. The upside of this is that EQ has focused people's attention on a key personality trait; the downside, however, is the idea that individuals with lower Adjustment or higher Neuroticism should be labeled "unintelligent". 

3) Despite what you read in 99% of pop psychology blogs, which are infused by the self-indulgent, narcissistic, and deluded spirit of the American self-help industry, human beings have not been designed to suppress negative emotions at the expense of maintaining unrealistic positive self-views all the time. High EQ, like high confidence, is adaptive in some environments but counterproductive in others. Likewise, there are many advantages to lower EQ, such as higher alertness to potential threats, the ability to focus on negative feedback, and higher levels of creativity (if you are interested in knowing more about this, read my recent book on the subject). A good example for the ambivalence of EQ would be president Obama, who would surely score highly on any EQ test. This makes him charming and calm, and a good communicator; however, it also makes him immune to negative feedback, and somewhat aloof, smug and self-satisfied.

Of course, there is still much merit to the idea that higher EQ confers individuals an advantage when it comes to dealing with people, but that is mainly because high Adjustment levels make people more "rewarding to deal with". In other words, all other things being equal, most people would prefer interacting with people who are stable, calm, and positive - though, personally, I think the world would be a very boring place if it were populated only by people with that profile.

In sum, it is probably more useful to think of EQ in terms of emotional reactivity or emotional sensitivity. Notice the former has a neutral connotation whereas the latter almost implies that lower EQ is better: because it is low, not high, EQ scorers who are more emotionally sensitive (think of high EQ as phlegmatism or the Queen of England). So, let's avoid using "emotional intelligence", unless we want to mistake EQ with IQ.

More importantly, given that a person's emotional reactivity - which encompasses their typical levels of optimism, pessimism, worry, anxiety, and calmness - are neither a matter of choice nor practice, but, rather, the result of biological predispositions and early environmental experiences, it is somewhat ironic to call people smart simply because they are more cool-headed; and it is also questionable and morally dubious to call people stupid simply because they are more emotional. Yes, on average, we seem to prefer relating to higher EQ people, and higher EQ makes it easier to manage stress and suppress one's impulses (especially because they are rarely there in the first place). However, it is time to stop stigmatizing people for their inability to be always confident, in a good mood, and behaving as though great things were happening all the time. I don't know if that's the world you live in, but it certainly isn't the one I live in, or where I want to live...

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Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D., is a Professor of Business Psychology at UCL and NYU. He studies online dating, entrepreneurship, and consumer preferences. more...

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