By Robert Epstein Ph.D., published on July 1, 1999 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
"Emotional intelligence" has been touted as the key to success in all spheres of life: school, work, relationships. But according to Jack Mayer, Ph.D., who originated the concept of EI with Yale psychologist Peter Salovey, Ph.D., we still have a lot to learn about this skill. Mayer, a psychology professor at the University of New Hampshire, spoke with Robert Epstein to clarify the uses and meanings of El.
RE: What exactly is "emotional intelligence"?
JM: It's a group of mental abilities which help you recognize and understand your own feelings and others'. Ultimately, El leads to the ability to regulate your feelings.
RE: So this is an intellectual skill. It's not just having feelings, but being able to understand what they mean.
JM: There are two sides to it. One side involves the intellect understanding emotion. The other side involves emotion reaching into the intellectual system and bringing about creative thoughts and ideas. That second side is hardest to pin down in the lab. But we believe it exists.
RE: Can emotional intelligence be learned?
JM: It doesn't make sense to me to talk about teaching an intelligence, although I know many people use that phrase. If emotional intelligence is like most other abilities, it is shaped partly by genetics and partly by environment. I like to talk about teaching knowledge. And I think it makes sense to talk about teaching emotional knowledge. I use this analogy: We don't say, "Can you learn math intelligence?" We say, "Can you learn algebra?" because we don't make our kids derive algebra from basic principles. We teach them about math as we understand it. It's the same thing with emotional intelligence. You don't have to rediscover all the rules of emotion on your own -- no one has enough intelligence to do that. Rather, you can be taught what different feelings might mean and how they relate to yourself and others.
RE: What's wrong with the popular conception of emotional intelligence?
JM: The popular presentation of EI is so different from the research we've been doing. Emotional intelligence is often defined as a list of traits such as optimism, persistence and warmth. Then, claims are made about how important those are. I've become concerned about people who are going through any sort of El program that is urging them to be as cheerful, happy and energetic as possible at work. No doubt there are a few people who are going to be helped that way, probably those people who are already upbeat and optimistic. But I think it is coercive to dictate how people are supposed to feel at work or other places, especially since these qualities are unrelated to many occupations. It's coercion without a genuinely useful agenda.
It is true that some salespeople can be helped by being optimistic and extroverted and so forth. But that's not necessarily a requirement for lawyers or teachers. And even in the case of salespeople, although optimism does predict success, it is not all that is important or necessary.
RE: So does having EI guarantee that you're always in control of your emotions?
JM: I'd like to think that El is independent of emotional state. I think you can be depressed and have high emotional intelligence, because everyone has a very good reason to be sad or depressed at some point or another. Given two people with negative emotions, I think the person with EI will climb out of his or her funk over the long term, though it won't necessarily be quick or easy. I would expect people to be sad and distressed at times -- it is part of the human condition -- and so emotionally intelligent people will be that way, too.
Robert Epstein is University Professor at United States International University