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:

“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 and weaknesses 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.

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