How emotional intelligence matters

As an author I’m used to being mis-quoted and mis-interpreted. But there’s one distortion of my position on how “emotional intelligence matters more than IQ” which disturbs me. As I explain in the new introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of Emotional Intelligence:

Unfortunately, misreadings of this book have spawned some myths, which I would like to clear up here and now. One is the bizarre—though widely repeated—fallacy that “EQ accounts for 80% of success.” This claim is preposterous. The misinterpretation stems from data suggesting IQ accounts for about 20 percent of career success. Because that estimate—and it is only an estimate—leaves a large portion of success unaccounted for, we must seek other factors to explain the rest. It does not mean, however, that emotional intelligence represents the rest of the factors in success: they certainly include a very wide range of forces—from the wealth and education of the family we are born into, to temperament, to blind luck, and the like–in addition to emotional intelligence.

As John Mayer and his associates have pointed out: “To the unsophisticated reader, bringing up the “80% unaccounted for variance” suggests that there may indeed be a heretofore overlooked variable that truly can predict huge portions of life success. Although that is desirable, no variable studied in a century of psychology has made such a huge contribution.”

Another common misconception takes the form of recklessly applying this book’s subtitle—”Why it can matter more than IQ”—to domains like academic achievement, where it does not apply without careful qualification. The extreme form of this misconception is the myth that EI “matters more than IQ” in all pursuits.

Emotional intelligence trumps IQ primarily in those “soft” domains where intellect is relatively less relevant for success—where, for example, emotional self-regulation and empathy may be more salient skills than purely cognitive abilities.
As it happens, some of these circumscribed realms are of major importance in our lives. One that comes to mind is health, to the extent that disturbing emotions and toxic relationships have been identified as risk factors in disease. Those who can manage their emotional lives with more calm and self-awareness seem to have a distinct and measurable health advantage, as has now been confirmed by many studies.

Another such domain is romantic love and personal relationships where, as we all know, very smart people can do very dumb things. A third—though I have not written about it —occurs at the top levels of competitive endeavors such as world-class sports. At that level, as I was told by a sports psychologist who coaches U.S. Olympic teams, everyone has put in the requisite 10,000-plus hours of practice, so that success hinges on the athlete’s mental game.

Research findings about leadership in business and the professions paint a more complex picture. IQ scores predict extremely well whether we can handle the cognitive challenges a given position demands. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of studies have shown that IQ predicts which career rungs a person can manage. No question there.

But IQ washes out when it comes to predicting who, among a talented pool of candidates within an intellectually demanding profession, will become the strongest leader. In part this is because of the “floor effect”: everyone at the top echelons of a given profession, or at the top levels of a large organization, has already been sifted for intellect and expertise. At those lofty levels a high IQ becomes a “threshold” ability, one needed just to get into and stay in the game.

As I proposed in my 1998 book Working With Emotional Intelligence, EI abilities rather than IQ or technical skills emerge as the “discriminating” competency that best predicts who among a group of very smart people will lead most ably. If you scan the competencies that organizations around the world have independently determined identify their star leaders, you discover that indicators of IQ and technical skill drop toward the bottom of the list the higher the position (IQ and technical expertise are much stronger predictors of excellence in lower rung jobs).”

For more clarifications on this and related points, see

One thought on “How emotional intelligence matters

  1. Good Evening and Happy New New Year!
    I am in the early stages of my dissertation work. I have chosen the topic of EI. In order to gather reliable sample data, I need to ask participants to take the Bar-On EQ-I S instrument. However, its cost is presenting an impediment. Is there an alternative (scholarship or discount) you know of? I understand if this was to be used for a company, but for research purposes there should be a viable option. Any advice you can provide will be greatly appreciated. Thanks for inspiring the rest of us… I have followed and continue to follow your work through the years.

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