The Unconventional Wisdom of Emotional Intelligence

Presents information on the ninth annual Convention of the American Psychological Society. Overview of the keynote address of Daniel Kahneman, Doctor of Philosophy, regarding colonoscopy; Concept of emotional intelligence; Predictors of depression.

By Marian M. Jones, published September 1, 1997 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016


WHEN IS IT BETTER TO PROLONG A PAINFUL PROCEDURE? Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., was about to explain during his keynote address at this year's American Psychological Society convention, when an animal rights activist burst into the hall and accused a convention honoree of being a monkey torturer. After a brief commotion--one that might have been painfully prolonged had a group of seemingly septuagenarian researchers not quickly dragged the activist away--the Princeton psychologist returned to the question at hand. A colonoscopy, Kahneman explained, seems less painful to a patient in retrospect if the physician leaves the colonoscopy tube in the bowels for a few extra minutes after viewing the colon. Leaving the tube in does hurt, but it's less painful than the first part of the procedure, Kahneman noted. And it's this relative reduction in pain that the patient remembers, rather than the total amount of discomfort he or she experienced.

This memorable beginning, however, didn't overshadow the presentations that followed. Here are some of the meeting's other highlights:


Emotional quotient, or EQ--supposedly a measure of a person's ability to identify and use emotions effectively--is hot. Some companies now require prospective employees to take EQ tests, and more than 700 school districts in the U.S. are considering programs they hope will raise children's emotional quotients. The problem is, we don't yet have a clear idea of what EQ is, Yale psychologist Peter Salovey, Ph.D., told the convention.

Salovey ought to know. He invented the concept of emotional intelligence (EI), together with University of New Hampshire psychologist John Mayer, Ph.D., in 1990. But their theories languished in obscurity until psychologist/journalist Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., popularized them two years ago in his world-wide bestseller Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. {For more on Goleman, see page 88.} Although Salovey acknowledges that Goleman's book is scientifically accurate (it never mentions the term EQ), he believes its original concepts have been lost in all of the media hype about measuring emotional intelligence. "I'm disappointed that the response to Goleman's book is that the world needs more tests," he says. "Why repeat the problems we've had with IQ as a measure of intelligence?"

Even if we want to measure EQ, Salovey notes, we first need to agree on what it is. His and Mayer's original definition of emotional intelligence encompassed the abilities to identify, understand, use, and regulate emotions in life. But since these skills may be independent of one another, it makes little sense for a test to lump them together into a single measurement. "Someone who is good at reading another person's facial expressions might be bad at regulating their own feelings," Salovey explains.

What's more, EI has been erroneously equated with optimism, good character, and tenacity in the popular press, Salovey reports. For example, a July article in London's Financial Times insisted that emotional intelligence was "previously known as character or disposition," and in 1995 the Los Angeles Times said that emotional intelligence involves using one's feelings in "good decisions," "motivating oneself despite persistent setbacks," and "staying hopeful"--all fine virtues, but not part of Salovey and Mayer's original concept. Furthermore, the connection between emotional intelligence and career success is not as well-established as recent articles and management books would have you believe. Salovey and Mayer estimate that it accounts for as little as 5 percent of an average person's occupational achievement.

No wonder Salovey worries where misconceptions about emotional intelligence are leading educators. While American school districts are clamoring to implement special emotional intelligence programs, "the whole idea of EI was to integrate emotion with other forms of intelligence. I'd rather see math teachers teach about frustration when kids are learning long division, or see reading teachers teach about emotions when a character in a story has emotions, or hear that science teachers teach about Thomas Edison and his passion for invention." In addition, these emotional intelligence programs overlook the disparate ways different cultures deal with emotions, and risk overwhelming children from families where emotional communication is skewed, Salovey warns in the introduction to a new book he co-edited, Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence (BasicBooks). Instead, he encourages schools to teach basic social skills, such as conflict resolution, which avoid telling students the best or right ways to feel.

Ironically, Salovey and Mayer have just come out with a CD-ROM entitled "Emotional IQ Test" (Virtual Entertainment). The multimedia exam includes four subtests on identifying, using, understanding, and regulating emotions. Each part asks users about their emotional responses to specific situations--for example, what feelings they might have if their dog were run over by a car, as well as the feelings of the driver. At the end of each subtest, the CD gives a score for that skill. When asked about the apparent contradiction between his objection to measuring EQ and his contribution to the CD-ROM, Salovey defends the disc as a "product for entertainment." Its purpose, he says, is "to help people learn something about themselves, not to be a scientific tool."


An old North Carolina proverb states that every man is sheriff of his own hearth. And that belief seems alive and well, particularly south of the Mason-Dixon line. One survey recently found that 36 percent of white Southerners approve of killing to defend one's house, while only 18 percent of Northerners do. In a similar vein, Southerners are more likely than their Northern counterparts to believe it is appropriate for a man to punch a drunk who bumps into his wife. And while Northerners most often kill while committing property crimes, such as holding up a 7-Eleven, Southerners, especially those in cities of fewer than 200,000 people, more commonly commit homicides when embroiled in personal arguments.

These statistics show that that honor, home, and violence are deeply intertwined in the white Southern male psyche, contends Richard Nisbett, Ph.D., a University of Michigan social psychologist, native Southerner, and author of Culture of Honor (Westview Press). Nisbett has conducted numerous experimental studies of this culture, with often astounding results.

In one study, members of Nisbett's research team sent letters to store, hotel, and restaurant chains in the guise of a hard-working, 27-year-old man requesting a job application. Half of the letters admitted that the "applicant" had been convicted of manslaughter for accidentally killing a man who had been having an affair with his fiancee and who had challenged him to a fight if he were "man enough." In the rest of the letters, the writer stated that he had been convicted of stealing a car to help support his wife and kids. The response rate to this second letter, it turned out, was similar throughout the country. But in the South and West almost 60 percent of employers sent applications to the letter writer who had accidentally killed a man, compared to only 46 percent of Northern companies. One Southern business owner even sent back a sympathetic letter to the man convicted of manslaughter, writing that "anyone could probably be in the situation you were in...Your honesty shows that you are sincere." These results suggest that many in the South still approve of using violence to defend male honor.

It's no surprise, then, that Nisbett finds that Southern men react more strongly than Northerners when insulted. In one experiment, as male college students walked down a long, narrow hallway, Nisbett had a large, burly man approach them. Southerners, on average, stepped aside to let the man pass when he was nine feet away, while Northerners waited until he was five to six feet away But if the man, without provocation, called the subject an "asshole" as he approached, Southern subjects would wait until he was three feet away to step aside. Northerners, however, didn't change their distance. Nisbett also found that Southern men had increased levels of testosterone and the stress hormone cortisol when insulted in this way, while Northern men did not.

How did this culture of honor arise? Most white people in small southern cities are descendants of Scotch-Irish herders who immigrated to the area in the 17th and 18th centuries. And herding cultures, Nisbett notes, have traditionally been violent because of the need to defend one's flock and grazing territory. In comparing herding regions of the South with areas where farming predominates, Nisbett found that the herding regions indeed have higher homicide rates. Even though these areas are no longer dependent on raising sheep and cattle, at least some of the herding culture's values seem to have endured.


Socrates insisted that "the unexamined life is not worth living," but it may be a lot happier than the life of a compulsive ruminator, according to Susan K. Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D., a University of Michigan psychologist. The tendency to repeatedly revisit one's problems, Nolen-Hoeksema finds, is the single greatest predictor of depression. And while it's widely known that women and victims of sexual abuse have high rates of depression, it's the ruminators in these groups who are especially likely to be depressed.

Nolen-Hoeksema assessed individuals who had recently lost a loved one for their tendency to ruminate, then followed up six months later. The ruminators, she found, were more likely to be depressed at the later date than non-ruminators, regardless of gender or histories of abuse. Moreover, although therapists tend to emphasize social support as a way to deal with life difficulties, those with greater support didn't show lower rates of depression.

Most people say that they ruminate because they're trying to figure out their problems, says Nolen-Hoeksema. And ruminating may indeed help non-depressed people resolve difficult situations. But depressed people, unfortunately, may tend to dwell on things that they can't change, or on the reasons they are depressed. Either way, their ruminations may interfere with effective problem-solving and further worsen their mood.

How can depressed ruminators get out of their rut? Nolen-Hoeksema observed that distracting questions elevated the moods of depressed people so that their state of mind nearly resembled that of non-depressed folk. In a related finding, she also found that people overloaded with responsibilities--working mothers, or those who have numerous non-occupational commitments--seem to have lower rates of depression. So the message for ruminators may be: It's time to get busy.