Why Emotional Intelligence Doesn’t Always Work

In The New Yorker article, Merve Emre talks about Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. This is a classic in the pop-psychology genre and has been around for more than 25 years and has sold over 5 million copies in forty languages. And then there is a whole industry around emotional intelligence. You can pay for assessments, tests, consultants, and more books. Emotional intelligence is the ultimate skill that will make you successful as a leader and in life.

What exactly is emotional intelligence?

The original definition by Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, which inspired Goleman, goes, “a type of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and other’s emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use the information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”

Even the most intelligent employees will struggle to collaborate with others if they are not socially aware. There certainly are places where a genius without any social skills will be valuable, usually in very specialized creative roles. In most of the roles, however, communicating and working well with others is a must.

It makes intuitive sense. However, it also seems to point to a universal concept that applies across cultures, and once you get the skill and are emotionally intelligent, you can easily deal with anyone.

What works for you doesn’t for someone else

Unfortunately, I would argue that, by definition, emotional intelligence is culture-specific. How you handle your emotions and the emotions of others depends on the environment you grew up and lived in. The emotional self-management that may work well for a rich guy from the majority of society may not be attainable for a poor person from an underprivileged background.

“Emotional intelligence is culture-specific. How you handle your emotions and the emotions of others depends on the environment you grew up and lived in.”

As Merve points out, Goleman’s emotional intelligence concept and its practices, assessments, and monitoring of self and others lead to the need for restraint and civility and ultimately to encouraging people to live “standard” lives of having a good education, having a stable job, and raising children in “standard” families. It is a very conservative view of the world and something not available to everyone.

The problem, of course, is that by claiming that emotional intelligence is the key to success, one sets unreasonable expectations of those who can’t or won’t achieve that type of life. It puts the blame for lack of success in life on an individual rather than on acknowledging that the environment and society play an important role.

Emotions are not universal

What’s worse, emotions are not built-in and are not universal. They are culture-specific. They are not automatic, but we create them. They are the results of our bodies’ reactions and the neuroplasticity of our brains that wires itself according to our environment. Emotions are not built by nature. They are a product of our collective agreement. In How Emotions are Made, neuroscientist and psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett calls it the theory of constructed emotion.

“Emotions are not universal. They are culture-specific. Emotions are not built by nature. They are a product of our collective agreement.”

Let’s say that someone close to you dies. How do you feel? You are sad. Why? You are sad because you know that death is associated with sadness in the culture you grew up in. You know that you should feel sad. Because of past experiences and knowledge of the culture, your brain directs your body to manifest certain behavior. Your heart rate accelerates, you feel knots in your stomach, and you start to cry to calm your nervous system. These manifestations in your body make you feel different than normal, and you connect these two things and say that you feel sad. It is not that your brain started with sadness. It ended up with it. If you were raised in a culture that considers death as a natural part of life and even celebrates it, you might have a similar bodily reaction yet associate it with a different emotion. If the person who died was killed, you might again have the same physical reaction but interpret it as anger.

You may think that you are good at reading people’s emotions by looking at their facial expressions, but scientists would argue with you. Research shows that the best we can do is to distinguish between pleasant and unpleasant feelings. But you can’t determine the actual emotion just by looking at someone’s picture. Your ability to name the emotion comes only from the context and not from the facial expression itself. If you see a picture of a crying person, only after you know whether it was taken at a funeral or wedding do you know whether the person feels sad or happy. Ultimately how we read facial expressions tells more about us than the person we are looking at. It depends on our culture.

Putting it all together

I, for one, remain a staunch advocate of most concepts behind emotional intelligence, but I also want to acknowledge that they may not work for everyone.

Do I believe people need to take their own lives into their hands and be responsible for their own feelings? Yes.

Do I believe that not everyone has the same starting position and, therefore, not everyone can reach the same success? Also yes.

And do I believe that the environment plays a significant role and can often prevent even the most emotionally intelligent person from understanding where others are coming from and behaving in line with Goleman’s expectations? That would be a big YES.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Do you believe you are emotionally intelligent? How do you know it? Do you recognize your own emotions? Are you good at reading emotions of others? Are you good at managing your own emotions? Do you believe we are all responsible for our own emotions or do you blame others when you feel bad?

Photo: geralt / Pixabay.com

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to get notified whenever I publish new stories or check out my book Quiet Success: The Introvert’s Guide To A Successful Career

Categories: Communication, Life

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: