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Emotional intelligence: a blessing or a curse?

Delving into potential drawbacks of emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence as a magnifying glass.

This year, emotional intelligence (EI) celebrates its 30th anniversary. It was 1990 when Peter Salovey and John Mayer published the first scientific article on EI (Salovey & Mayer, 1990). EI was then popularized by Daniel Goleman’s best-selling book (1995), which introduced EI as the best predictor of success in life. Despite the burgeoning literature showing the positive effects of EI, counterintuitive results about the effect of high levels of EI on several outcomes have been found (e.g, Davis & Nichols, 2016; Ciarrochi et al., 2002).

In particular, a potential downside of EI was brought up in an engaging debate about whether people in leadership roles need emotional intelligence (Antonakis, Ashkanasy, & Dasborough, 2009). It was suggested that individuals high in EI might be overly empathic to emotions felt by themselves and by others in a way that would hamper their effectiveness as leaders in the workplace. This effect was called the “curse of emotion,” the idea being that high EI leaders might be insufficiently assertive when having to deal with controversial issues, thus compromising their ability to function effectively.

Why emotional intelligence? The logic of feelings 

The reasoning behind the alleged impairing function of emotions in leadership discussed above echoes the vision of affect and reason as opposite forces, which dominated in business and in pop culture until the 90s. Things have changed since then, but some still struggle to accept the ‘emotional’ side of intelligence. 

Tearing down three false myths about emotionality and (in)effectiveness

1: Emotions do not necessarily bias perception and reasoning. 

Emotions in themselves are not right or wrong, good or bad, correct or incorrect. Emotions are simply pieces of information telling us how we are currently navigating our world. Depending on how we understand and use this piece of information we may end up being supported or impaired by emotions.

2: Being emotional does not equal being weak. 

Feeling deep emotions, having a higher level of emotional self-awareness, being more accurate in labelling and attributing emotions to others, as well as being more capable to regulate emotions are all characteristics that may foster creativity and overall performance, sustaining the development of one’s full potential. People who disclose their feelings are more authentic and are perceived to be so by others. And yet being able to show sincere and authentic emotions without feeling inadequate is a luxury that only few people can afford; it requires very deep understanding of one’s strength and weaknesses, as well as a solid sense of self-worth. Hence, speaking one’s mind through emotions is a demonstration of power, not a weakness.

3: Being emotionally intelligent is different from being overwhelmed by emotions. 

The emotionally intelligent person is someone capable of managing the ups and downs that positive and negative emotions may bring; someone who has a more accurate perception of one’s own emotions and those of others and uses this information to better adjust to the social environment; someone who has a profound understanding of emotions and shows it through empathic concern; someone who can prevent negative emotions from impeding thinking and who can channel them as a motivational force. Ultimately, the emotionally intelligent person deeply resonates with emotions and, more importantly, can handle this characteristic so as to take only the benefits of this utmost quality.

What to retain about the “curse of emotion” idea? The role of ‘hypersensitivity’

If high EI individuals really are more emotionally intelligent, they ought to be less vulnerable to the “curse of emotion” effect. After all, one would expect people genuinely high in EI to have no problem in managing emotions, intense or otherwise. So, why then have some results started to emerge showing negative effects of EI? Andrew Ortony and I provided a potential explanation of the contrasting effects related to EI, which relies on what we called the hypersensitivity hypothesis: EI would work as a magnifier of emotional experience, such that individuals high in EI feel stronger emotions, pay more attention to emotions, and they amplify the effect of emotions on behavior and social perception (Fiori & Ortony, 2016). Although this function of EI as a magnifying glass should be, in principle, an asset, the majority of individuals might struggle to manage this. 

With great power comes great labor

The bottom line is that being truly emotionally intelligent is not for everyone. When EI was popularized it seemed as if this new construct was levering the status of those who did not have high IQ by providing them the necessary skills for being successful in life. It appears clear now that being emotionally intelligent applies to only a small percentage of the population: It requires to be smart in its traditional connotation, plus to be intelligent at using emotions as a way to support thinking and behavior. Indeed, whereas it is relatively common to observe political leaders and professionals in different domains possessing a good dose of intelligence, it is more difficult to spot those who have EI on top of it…

As Alain de Botton very well noticed (2019) “There are few catastrophes, in our own lives or in those of nations, that do not ultimately have their origins in emotional ignorance”. Ultimately, emotionally intelligent individuals are, above all, emotionally wiser.

References

Antonakis, J., Ashkanasy, N. M., & Dasborough, M. T. (2009). Does leadership need emotional intelligence? The Leadership Quarterly, 20, 247-261.
Ciarrochi, J., Deane, F. P. & Anderson, S. (2002). Emotional intelligence moderates the relationship between stress and mental health. Personality and Individual Differences, 32(2), 197-209.
Davis, S. K. & Nichols, R. (2016). Does emotional intelligence have a “dark” side? A review of the literature. Frontiers in Psychology, 7.
De Botton, A. (2019). The school of life. An emotional education. Penguin Random House, UK.
Fiori, M., & Ortony, A. (2016). Are Emotionally Intelligent Individuals Hypersensitive to Emotions? Testing the “Curse of Emotion”. Academy of Management Proceedings, 10023.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.
Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9, 185-211.

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