The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence is Obvious

2014-07-28 Emotional Intelligence

I came across an Atlantice article (from back in January) called The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence. The article itself is rather boring. It is full of non-insights such as the fact that people who are highly emotionally intelligent (e.g. good at regulating their own emotions and intuiting the emotions of others) can be exceptional manipulators.[ref]In other ground-breaking research, social scientists discover that people who are very big and physical strong can beat up people who are smaller and weaker. And sometimes do.[/ref] It’s totally obvious that emotional intelligence would be a benefit in sectors like sales and customer service, and perhaps just mildly interesting that it would actually be a hindrance for mechanics and accountants. All of this leads to a completely banal concluding paragraph:

Thanks to more rigorous research methods, there is growing recognition that emotional intelligence—like any skill—can be used for good or evil. So if we’re going to teach emotional intelligence in schools and develop it at work, we need to consider the values that go along with it and where it’s actually useful. As Professor Kilduff and colleagues put it, it is high time that emotional intelligence is “pried away from its association with desirable moral qualities.”

The one thing that did strike my interest–and the reason I’m blogging about this–is the incredibly peculiar notion that The Atlantic thought there was anything at all to report here. Do we really live in a society where people associate emotional intelligence (which is basically just one particular form of power) with virtue? And, if so, where on earth did the notion come from?

I’m not quite willing to go so far as to say that the opposite is more intuitive–that emotionally (or otherwise) intelligent folks ought to be less moral–but it would at least certainly fit the age-old wisdom that power is fundamentally corrosive.


4 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence is Obvious”

  1. I blogged about this back in January:

    As I stated there,

    “While these findings may not be surprising, a comprehensive analysis of emotional intelligence literature revealed something that might be:

    ‘In jobs that required extensive attention to emotions, higher emotional intelligence translated into better performance…However, in jobs that involved fewer emotional demands, the results reversed. The more emotionally intelligent employees were, the lower their job performance. For mechanics, scientists, and accountants, emotional intelligence was a liability rather than an asset. Although more research is needed to unpack these results, one promising explanation is that these employees were paying attention to emotions when they should have been focusing on their tasks.'”

    Considering that EI is a trend in business and the like, it is important to point out situations where it *isn’t* the solution and to note that it *isn’t* intrinsically virtuous. Think of the leadership trend: being a leader is often talked about as if it is inherently good, when leadership can actually be used to immoral ends. So while the dark side may seem obvious, it is often overlooked.

  2. This is a classic case of not being able to see the forest because they’re focused on the trees. They hit on the real issue, but seem completely oblivious to it. Knowledge, in any form, is power. Science, math and verbal skills can be used unethically just as easily as emotional intelligence. The issue is ethics. Society has come to the conclusion that it has no right to force specific beliefs and values on anyone, which I agree with. However, we need to teach ethics somehow. I am certain it can be done in a religiously neutral way – universities do it all the time. We can’t make people choose to be ethical, but we can help them figure out what ethics are in society, so that they don’t have to learn by their mistakes.

  3. I missed this back on original posting date, but am glad people are raising these questions. I’ve done a fair bit of reading on EI and have, individually, benefited from it. But even as it was helping there was this nagging voice in the back of my head as I was reading some of the literature. My memory, if it serves, is that the rise of EI is, in part, a reaction against the perceived problems with current intelligence measures like IQ, standardized testing, college admission policies etc. There’s also an overt gender component to it (addressing the stereotype of the classic emotionally closed-off male). I think there’s some genuine insights by EI about the shortcomings of the status quo, but the problem, I think, is that these insights are delivered by a popular movement whose goal is to replace the status quo rather than improve it. This is nothing new, but I think it’s this propensity to “replace” rather than “improve” is what has us constantly swinging the pendulum too far.

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