The figure of Hannibal Lecter, here represented by actor Mads Mikkelsen, would be a perfect example of emotional intelligence.

What compelling evidence exists for Emotional Intelligence (EI)?

The concept of emotional intelligence was heavily popularized by the publications of psychologist-journalist Daniel Goleman. Goleman claims for example that EI accounts for 80% of work performance and life success and is directly linked to career progression (Goleman, 1995, 1998). However, not all types of emotional intelligence appear productive. Corruption and power struggles all over the world confirm that in many cases the least empathetic, most anti-social Machiavellian strategists and manipulative sociopaths rank among the most successful public leaders. Emotional intelligence appears to evolve independently of ethics.

Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer define emotional intelligence “as the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions” (Salovey, & Mayer,1990, p.190). The ambiguity of the term has led to critique counter-arguing that emotions and intelligence are unrelated and EI is therefore an invalid concept (Locke, 2005). Evidence relating to EI can be separated into empirical evidence, of which there is little due to lack of rigorous research, and circumstantial, of which there is plenty.

Conceptually, no agreed definition of EI has been concluded. Zeidner, Roberts and Matthews point out that “(…) it is presently unclear whether EI is cognitive or noncognitive; whether it refers to explicit or implicit knowledge of emotion; and whether it refers to a basic aptitude or to some adaptation to a specific social and cultural milieu.” (Zeidner et al., 2008, p. 67). Unaddressed remains also the question if EI entails, beyond perception and use, an overarching concept of meta-emotional regulation competence.

A methodological weakness of EI research is the lack of standardized assessment of socio-emotional skills (Garner, 2010, p.307) and the inadequacy of EI measures, such as ECI, EQ-i, MEIS and MSCEIT V.2, due to missing peer-reviews, strong correlation with personality measures, lack of predictive validity beyond general mental ability and low inter-relation of different EI measures. Latter questions if EI-scales actually address the same construct (Conte, 2005, p.434-437). Van Rooy and Viswesvran (2004) e.g., note significant correlations of ability-based EI measures to Big-Five personality traits ranging between .23 and .80, suggesting low discriminant validity.

Emotions and Learning: Circumstantial Evidence 

Emotions matter in learning. Positive affect supports learning by arousing focus, leading to attention and engagement, creating extended thought-action repertoires while broadening experiences and coping strategies. Negative emotionality narrows thoughts and behaviors (Reschly, Huebner, Appleton & Antaramian, 2008) while achievement emotions support motivation to learn (Pekrun, Frenzel, Goetz & Perry, 2007).

Such ‘constructive emotions’ scaffold cognition and social interaction by facilitating learning processes pre-cognitively. To this extent emotions may not be directly ‘intelligent’, but they motivate and facilitate cognition – to respond to Locke’s (2005) argument that emotions and intelligence don’t relate – by developing emotion knowledge and emotion regulation, e.g. between teachers and students (Garner, 2010, p.312-315).

A recent meta-analysis by Durlack, Weissberg, Taylor and Schellinger (2011) concludes significant effect of social-emotional learning (SEL) programs at schools, which include outcomes of emotion recognition, stress-management, empathy, problem-solving, decision-making skills and diminished anti-social behavior. Reported are improved school attitudes and performance (Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004; Zidner et al., 2009, p.241) and better learning management under stress (Elliot & Dweck, 2005). The effects of positive emotionality are not surprising, given that learning is inherently socially-based, which still begs the question how structured, pro-social emotions specifically work.

Conclusion: EI as a Concept

Most advocates of EI agree that we cannot have EI without empathy, which is a highly complex construct by itself (Coplan & Goldie, 2011). Is EI an idea that should be broken down into more comprehensive and manageable constructs? Currently EI seems to account for everything under the sun, e.g., EI equals emotional literacy + empathy + problem-solving + pro-social behavior + stress management + emotional control + decision-making skills + democratic outlook on society + (n). This uncoordinated approach explains the unreliable measurement of current conceptualizations of IE. Unaddressed remain likewise the construction of socially distributed intelligence (Emery, Clayton & Frith, 2008), scaffold by a process-based emotional adaptation to new environments (Zeidner et al., 2008, p.68). Emotional Intelligence is an intuitive idea of pop-psychology which does not hold up to scientific scrutiny.  As much as we agree that emotions matter on all levels of life, current concepts of EI unfortunately provide no reliable conceptual framework to yield greater insights on the constructive role of emotions for social life.



Conte, J. M. (2005). A review and critique of emotional intelligence measures. Journal Of Organizational Behavior, 26(4), 433-440. doi:10.1002/job.319

Coplan, A., & Goldie, P. (2011). Empathy [electronic book] : philosophical and psychological perspectives / [edited by] Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2011.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01564.x

Elliot, A. J., & Dweck, C. S. (Eds.). (2005). Handbook of competence and motivation. New York: Guilford.

Emery, N., Clayton, N., & Frith, C. D. (2008). Social intelligence : from brain to culture / edited by Nathan Emery, Nicola Clayton and Chris Frith. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2008.

Garner, P. W. (2010). Emotional Competence and its Influences on Teaching and Learning. Educational Psychology Review, (3). 297.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam.

Goleman, D. (1998). Working with emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.

Locke, E. A. (2005). Why emotional intelligence is an invalid concept. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26(4), 425–431.

Pekrun, R., Frenzel, A. C., Goetz, T., & Perry, R. (2007). The Control-Value Theory of achievement emotions: An integrative approach to emotions in education. In Schutz, P. A., & Pekrun, R. (Eds.). Emotion in education, Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier Academic Press.

Reschly, A. L., Huebner, E., Appleton, J. J., & Antaramian, S. (2008). Engagement as flourishing: The contribution of positive emotions and coping to adolescents’ engagement at school and with learning. Psychology In The Schools, 45(5), 419-431. doi:10.1002/pits.20306

Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, cognition, and personality, 9(3), 185-211.

Van Rooy, D. L., & Viswesvaran, C. (2004). Emotional intelligence: A meta-analytic investigation of predictive validity and nomological net. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 65, 71-95.

Zeidner, M., Matthews, G., & Roberts, R. D. (2009). What we know about emotional intelligence [electronic book] : how it affects learning, work, relationships, and our mental health / Moshe Zeidner, Gerald Matthews, and Richard D. Roberts. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c2009.

Zeidner, M., Roberts, R., & Matthews, G. (2008). The science of emotional intelligence: Current consensus and controversies. European Psychologist, 13(1), 64-78. doi:10.1027/1016-9040.13.1.64

Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Wang, M. C., & Walberg, H.J. (Eds.). (2004). Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say? New York: Teachers College Press.

One thought on “Emotional Intelligence: Pop-psychology Without Evidence
  1. I enjoyed reading this, it is always adventurous when you attempt to analyze or validate attributes like empathy with scientific methods.

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