Is Emotional Intelligence really an intelligence?

Some people argue that Emotional Intelligence is actually a set of skills. This makes me think, why is it called emotional intelligence, and not Emotional Skill, or something like that? Is it really an intelligence? Or if a set of skills can form an “emotional intelligence”, then can any set of skills be considered an intelligence?

Intelligence is “the ability to carry out abstract thought, as well as the general ability to learn and adapt to the environment.” (Mayer, Salovey and Caruso, 2004, p198). Most researchers now refute the concept of ‘g’ – a common general factor that influences intelligence in each domain – which is what we generally think of when we think intelligence. Also the concept of IQ seems very narrow and misses out on a range of behaviours that you might intuitively consider to be indicative of intelligence. Currently, researchers seem to favour the idea of multiple intelligences, that each cover different domains separately, one of which being emotional intelligence, but we also have social intelligence, IQ, verbal intelligence, spatial intelligence, and so on.

What distinguishes these intelligences from each other? And does emotional intelligence fit the bill, or is it better considered only as a set of skills? According to Mayer, Salovey and Caruso (2004) intelligences…

* Process a distinct type of information

Emotional intelligence certainly ticks this box. Emotions are conveyed not only verbally, but through our body language, behaviour, and facial expressions; and in the latter case, the information appears to be a human universal, consistent across culture (Ekman, 2003). Whether you go to modern, pre-industrial, or tribal societies, everyone smiles when happy, frowns when sad, etc. It’s a common ‘language’.

* Must be operationalised in a ‘test’ format, for which there are more-or-less right answers

If we take an IQ test, there is one correct answer to each question. I took the MSCEIT (an EI test; see Mayer, Salovey, Caruso, and Sitarenios, 2003) a while back, and I definitely didn’t see that – not through the whole test.

There was one section in particular, which Andy Roberts of Breath London who was administering my feedback, said is frequently questioned.

There were a load of pictures, for instance, a bunch of grey squares, and you had to answer “How much happiness is shown in this picture?”, and things like that. Is there really a right or wrong answer to that?

Another one was a picture of a rock in a lake. Maybe I’m missing something, but how can that be happy? Its a rock in a lake. Apparently there is a right answer, which is judged by consensus and expert criteria. I’m sorry, but I don’t care how many people think that a rock is happy – it isn’t. And who can be an expert on the happiness of rocks in lakes? Or are we supposed to say how happy it makes us? Because what if rocks in lakes just don’t make me smile? Does that mean I can’t recognise happiness in people? On the other hand, if it’s measured by consensus, are we sure that identifying the happiness shown by a rock in a lake carries over to identifying emotions in people. For example, would people with average EI give a different score to people with high EI? How would we know?

However, the other items on the test such as facial expression and emotion name recognition, certainly would have closer associations with actual emotional expression (and clearer right/wrong answers).

* Shows patterns of correlations similar to other intelligences

Apparently EI is ‘factorally unified’ and correlates modestly with other intelligences. So it’s a distinct construct but at the same time you wouldn’t necessarily expect someone very high in EI to be very low in, say verbal intelligence.

By the way, if you’re wondering why intelligences can correlate, but we can’t find ‘g’, a general factor of intelligence, read this page, for a comprehensive explanation. To quote the author “This doubtless more than exhausts your interest in reading about the subject; it has certainly exhausted my interest in writing about it.”

* It should develop with age

According to Mayer, Salovey and Caruso, (2004), there is evidence that EI develops with age, which meets the third criteria for an intelligence.

So it looks like EI does tick all the boxes – not completely inside the lines – but mostly so. Which isn’t to say that it’s not a set of skills – after all you could break down an IQ test into various cognitive skills – but it’s not only that.

By the way, Bob Sternberg, the big name in intelligence research, the guy who made the call for the study of multiple intelligences back in the 1980s, also of triangular theory of love fame, has a very interesting definition of intelligence on his website:

“I define [intelligence] as your skill in achieving whatever it is you want to attain in your life within your sociocultural context, by capitalizing on your strengths and compensating for, or correcting, your weaknesses.”

I’ve talked about strengths a lot. Perhaps, some years down the line there will be a strengths intelligence – the ability we have to recognise our personal strengths into our every day lives. Maybe when the strengths models are better developed, we will be able to compare them against the criteria for an intelligence.

How much strength is shown by this rock in a lake?


Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions Revealed, NY: H. Holt

Mayer, J. D., Salovey, P., & Caruso, D. R. (2004). Emotional intelligence: Theory, findings, and implications. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 197-215.

Mayer, J. D., Salovey, P., Caruso, D. R., & Sitarenios, G. (2003). Measuring emotional intelligence with the MSCEIT V2.0. Emotion, 3, 97-105.

15 thoughts on “Is Emotional Intelligence really an intelligence?

  1. This will be a non-scientific comment.

    I am a pianist. Emotional intelligence is a big part of the way I play.

    And, having just finished a 7-week run of “The Fantasticks” (played in pit band), I think it’s safe to say that emotional intelligence plays a major part in actors’ decisions.

    Gretchen @ GretchensPianos
    .-= Gretchen Saathoff´s last blog ..Still practicing the show every day =-.

  2. I’d say that emotional intelligence is an intelligence since the ability to carry out abstract thought, as well as the general ability to learn and adapt to the environment is needed to carry out emotional intelligence. Without a certain amout of age and therefore of experience of life, one cannot really be emotionally intelligent, I’d say. You need to have loads of experience in different directions for being able to estimate situations correctly.

  3. I think part of emotional intelligence deals with being aware of the part that people’s emotions play in their decision making.

    I have come to the conclusion that a lot of my life is run on ‘gut feelings’ and when I go against those I seem to end up with problems. In other words, if my emotional feeling about something is good it seems to be better for me than my way of logical thinking.

    Human intelligence (I think) consists of using so many different thinking applications simultaneously that it is a difficult ask of psychologists and psychiatrists to distinguish which reasoning mechanism is the governing one for which type of decision made. I don’t think we only ever use just one at a time.
    .-= Jan Smith´s last blog ..Dan Kimpel – Music Business – “Networking” =-.

  4. I think emotional intelligence has always been the most important part of my success always. I feel a bit down now, because some personal problems, but I just got a philosophy online degree and I am sure I will recover. Emotions are very important part of everybody, without that we are lost.
    .-= Kaloyan Banev´s last blog ..You can earn a philosophy degree online! =-.

  5. What if that rock is sad because it was left at the lake? Does the person who took the pictures know that? I mean talking to rocks can be a sticky situation if you don’t know what you’re doing…

    Does emotional intelligence develop with age solely because we have more experience, or does our brain merely not have the ability to obtain experience in EI at a younger age?

    1. Very true, rocks can be really awkward when they want to be. Can I point out that I don’t condone talking to rocks except when properly supervised.

      I don’t know the answer to your question for certain, but it’s a little of both, I imagine. The brain develops, EI along with it, and our experiences also effect how the brain develops. Also it depends on what younger age you mean specifically…different skills relevant to what we call EI develop at different points, e.g., by 9 months we can understand attention in other people, by 2-3 years we have our theory of mind, so before this age we probably can’t gain experience as we’re not fully aware that other people have motives and beliefs that are different from our own. Again, I don’t know for sure.

  6. Emotions are important and while I definatley do not think that emotions are in anyway a predetermined factor, I think they are not quite intelligence either. Intelligence implies a rating system of some being more emotionally intelligent then otheres, but how do you rate that? how do you ‘learn’ emotions? I dont think you have to be a talented musician for philosophy major to be considered ’emotionall intelligent’

    1. Kyle,

      Well there’s different aspects to it. One part of EI, for instance, is recognising emotions in others. This is definitely something that can be learned, just through being actively sensitive, aware, having more social experiences etc. Another one is recognising emotions in yourself, which something like mindfulness meditation might help with. So there are ways.

  7. I can recall a discussion I once had with a psychology professor whom had a difficult time believing that it’s possible to accurately measure something like emotional and creative intelligence and what the effects are on certain individuals. Typically a test is run that is measured against the general populous to determine where one particular individual is at. I believe the professor also gave the example of a foreign student moving to America who had to take an IQ test, but because of her different background and values, she scored considerably lower than the rest of her classmates. This example could also be used in correlation to your example with the rock in the lake. Some individuals may perceive it as peaceful, calm, happy, while others may think it to be dull, gray, boring, etc. Or perhaps there’s some other type of archetypical meaning in another culture that could describe it as destructive?

    To me, the whole idea of emotional intelligence is subjective and is very difficult to be measured or compared.

    1. Roxanne,

      Certainly in the case of the rock, it could be debated. I think the idea is that, as you say, if most of the population think the rock is peaceful, then you are more emotionally intelligent if you also think it is peaceful because you’re more tuned in to the way people usually think. The other parts of the test are pretty sound, things like recognising facial expressions, which are objective/universal across cultures. Another way to test the value of the rock question is to see how people who score highly on the objective questions score on the rock one, and use that as the yardstick for the ‘correct’ answer, although in that case, why bother with it at all? I’m assuming that question has been validated one way or the other – I haven’t looked into the development of the test.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.


  8. Warren, this is a good debate; while there is little denying emotional “intelligence”, it really hard to categorize this this as an intelligence. unlike most other types of intelligence, where there is typically a right answer, emotional intelligence is so unique to an individual I don’t think it can be classified as an intelligence.

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