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Emotional Intelligence is not "learned"

While doing a book review I saw that the authors are still echoing Goleman's claim that "EI can be learned, unlike IQ which stays the same." This prompted me to remind people that this is very misleading. It was one of Goleman's big marketing claims which helped his book sales and helped make him a multi-millionaire. But it is misleading because both innate cognitive intelligence and innate emotional intelligence can be developed, just as either one can be left undeveloped. What is true, though, of emotional intelligence, and less true of something like a person's potential for solving math problems, is that in an emotionally abusive home or classroom an emotionally gifted child can be taught dysfunctional emotional lessons, whereas we don't often teach that 2+2=1. At the risk of offending millions of people, I will add though, that many people are still teaching very young children religious stories and presenting them as both sacred, and at the same time, scientific, facts. This is a practice which I believe stunts their intellectual development.

In any case, math skills, like emotional skills, can be taught at any age. To say that EI can be learnt and IQ related skills can't be, is simply false. We need to be very careful with our terms. An intelligence is not the same thing as a skill. If a person goes to university late in life, are they then more "intelligent?" Or just more educated and perhaps better skilled? Or, if a person goes to a trade school to learn to be a bricklayer, does he then become more intelligent?

My work with teens has convinced me beyond any shadow of a doubt that some young people have a much higher level of innate emotional intelligence than others their age. They are able to 1) identify & express, 2) use, and 3) understand emotions in ways that far surpass their classmates. These cover three of the four branches of the Mayer Salovey model of EI. The other branch is managing emotions. This is where the family makes all the difference in what happens later in their lives. The teens I talk to are coming from emotionally abusive and neglectful home, yet it is clear to me some of them are young emotional geniuses.

But, between the ages of about 12 to 16 they learn and internalize destructive and unhealthy emotional management coping mechanisms. (See related article on the Dark Side of EI) It is truly scary to me how verbally viscious they can learn to be. They also behave in self-destructive ways such as self-harming. But they have not become emotionally unintelligent. Their intelligence has been misdirected and misdeveloped. It has now become a weapon against themselves and/or others. Still, I do believe, with help and/or much self-study, they can "unlearn" the destructive and dysfunctional "skills" they have picked up or come up with on their own. And, because they still retain their innate emotional intelligence, they have the potential to be very fast learners with respect to emotional problem sovling and ultimately reach a high level of emotional development. Perhaps they will even be able to reach a higher level than they would have in a healthy home, because they will have a wider range of experiences and feelings to draw from.

To me it is sad that so many misleading claims were made by Goleman and are now being perpetuated almost 8 years later. The concept of emotional intelligence, and the development of it, is important enough to warrant serious attention on its own merits. Misleading claims are not only unnecessary, but they hurt the field of EI.

S. Hein
July 16, 2003

Note: For Jack Mayer's comments on the idea of "teaching" emotional intelligence, see his interview with Psychology Today