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Why Emotional Intelligence Is an Invalid Concept

by Edwin A. Locke
University of Maryland

In this paper I argue that the concept of emotional intelligence (EI) in invalid both
because it is not a form of intelligence and because it is defined so broadly and
inclusively that it has no intelligible meaning. I distinguish the so called concept of
emotional intelligence from actual intelligence and from rationality. I identify the actual
relation between reason and emotion. I reveal the fundamental inadequacy of the concept
of EI when applied to leadership. Finally, I suggest some alternatives to the EI concept.

Why Emotional Intelligence Is an Invalid Concept

The concept of intelligence refers to ones ability to form and grasp concepts,
especially higher level or more abstract concepts. The observations on which the concept
of intelligence is formed are that some people are simply able to get things better than
others, that is, they are able to make connections, see implications, reason deductively
and inductively, grasp complexity, understand the meaning of ideas, etc. better than other
people. Motivation obviously plays a role in understanding concepts and can partly
compensate for low ability, but even highly motivated people differ in intellectual ability.
Those who are better able to grasp higher level concepts are better able to handle
complex tasks and jobs.
Intelligence must be clearly distinguished from rationality. Whereas intelligence
refers to ones capacity to grasp abstractions, rationality refers to how one actually uses
ones mind. A rational individual takes facts seriously and uses thinking and logic to
reach conclusions. A person can be very intelligent and yet very irrational (cf. many
modern philosophers; Ghate & Locke, 2003). For example, a persons thinking may be
dominated by emotions, and they may not distinguish between what they feel and what
they can demonstrate to be true.
The concept of emotional intelligence (EI) was introduced by Salovey and Mayer
(1990), although related ideas such as social intelligence had been introduced by earlier
writersoriginally by E.L. Thorndike. Salovey and Mayer (1990, p. 189) defined
emotional intelligence as, the ability to monitor ones own and others feelings and
emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide ones thinking

and actions. (Note: definitions of EI are constantly changing, an issue I will return to
later).There are several problems with this definition. First, the ability to monitor ones
emotions does not require any special degree or type of intelligence. Monitoring ones
emotions is basically a matter of where one chooses to focus ones attention, outwards at
the external world or inward at the contents and processes of ones own consciousness.
(This claim obviously implies that people have volitional control over focusing their
minds. For a detailed discussion and defense of claim that people possess volition or free
will, see Binswanger, 1991, and Peikoff, 1991.) Focusing inwards involves introspection.
Similarly, the ability to read the emotions of others is not necessarily an issue of
intelligence. It could simply be a matter of paying attention to others and being aware of
ones own emotions so that one can empathize with others. For example, if one is
unaware, due to defensiveness, that one can feel fear, one will not be able to empathize
with fear in others.
Second, discriminating between emotions is a learned skill just as is detecting a
given emotion. A highly intelligent person may be better able to make very subtle
distinctions between similar emotions (e.g., jealousy and envy), but, for basic emotions
(e.g., love, anger, fear, desire), it just a matter of focusing inwards so as to develop ones
introspective skill.
Third, whether one uses ones knowledge in everyday action is not an issue of
intelligence per se. Many factors may come into play here. Among them are rationality
(vs. emotionalism), being in (vs. out of) focus, integrity (including courage in the face of
opposition), and the nature of ones purpose. In sum, the definition of EI indicates that it

is really some combination of assorted habits, skills and/or choices rather than an issue of
It is simply arbitrary to attach the word intelligence to assorted habits or skills, as
Howard Gardner and EI advocates do, on the alleged grounds that there are multiple
types of intelligences. This extension of the term simply destroys the meaning of the
conceptwhich, in fact, is the hidden agenda of the advocates of multiple intelligences.
The ultimate motive is egalitarianism: redefining what it means to be intelligent so that
everyone will, in some from, be equal in intelligence to everyone else. The agenda here is
not scientific but political. However, arbitrary redefinitions do not change reality. Some
people actually are more intelligent, in terms of their ability to grasp concepts, than
others, but this ability is not necessarily reflected in every skill that people choose to
develop. If one wants to group a set of related phenomena into a single concept, there
must be a conceptually identified, common element among them. Otherwise, the concept
has no clear meaning.
As another case in point, consider how Salovey and Mayer, in the same article
cited above, (1990, p. 190) expand their conceptualization of emotional intelligence. It is
said to include: the appraisal and expression of emotions in the self, both verbal and nonverbal; the appraisal and identification of emotions in others through non-verbal
identification and empathy; the regulation of emotions in oneself and in others; and the
utilization of emotions so as to engage in flexible planning, creative thinking, direction of
attention and motivation.
Observe that the concept of EI has now become so broad and the components so
variegated that no one concept could possible encompass or integrate all of them no

matter what the concept was called; it is no longer even an intelligible concept. What is
the common or integrating element in a concept that includes: introspection about
emotions, emotional expression, non-verbal communication with others, empathy, selfregulation, planning, creative thinking and the direction of attention? There is none.
Following Salovey and Mayer, Daniel Goleman (1994) popularized the concept of
EI. According to Goleman, EI involves: self-motivation and persistence; skill at
introspection; delay of gratification; self-control of impulses, moods and emotions;
empathy; and social skills (the ability to make friends). These elements overlap
considerably with those of Salovey and Mayer and are equally un-integratible by means
of a single concept. Most of the actions involved actually require the use of reason.
To add to the confusion, in another article, Mayer (1999, p. 50) defines emotional
intelligence as, the capacity to reason with emotion in four areas: to perceive emotion, to
integrate it in thought, to understand it and to manage it. The fundamental problem here
is that one cannot reason with emotion. This is a contradiction in terms. Reason and
emotion are two very different cognitive processes, and they perform very different
psychological functions. To reason means to observe reality starting with the material
provided by the senses, to integrate, without contradiction, sensory material into concepts
and concepts into principles. Reason is the means of gaining and validating ones
knowledge. It is a volitional process guided by the conscious mind.
In contrast, emotions entail an automatic process based on subconsciously held
knowledge and values. Emotions reflect ones stored beliefs about objects, people or
situations and ones subconscious appraisal of them based on ones values. Emotions are
the form in which one experiences automatized value judgments (Peikoff, 1991). Every

emotion reflects a specific type of value judgment. For example, fear is the automatic
response to the judgment of a physical threat. Anger is the response to the judgment that
a wrong has been done to you or valued others. Joy is the result of having achieved some
important value. Desire results from appraising some object that one does not possess or
some person who one does not yet have a relationship with as a positive value.
Because emotions are automatic and based on subconsciously stored beliefs and
values, they cannot be assumed to be valid assessments of reality. Ones beliefs might be
wrong; ones values might be irrational. Emotionsautomatic productions of the
subconscious mind-- are not tools of knowledge. The psychological function of emotions
is not to know the world but to make automatic evaluations and motivate action.
Emotions contain, as part of the experience, felt action tendencies. Positive emotions
entail the felt tendency to approach, possess or retain the appraised object; negative
emotions entail the felt tendency to flee, harm or destroy the appraised object. This does
not mean, however, that emotions have to be acted on. Through the power of reason we
can decide whether action in a given case is appropriate or not, and if appropriate, what
action is most suitable given the total situation.
One cannot, therefore, reason with emotion; one can only reason about it. It is
through reason that one identifies what emotion one is experiencing, discovers the beliefs
and values that gave rise to it, and decides what action, if any, to take on the face of it. It
is also through reason, which, as noted earlier, is an active, volitional process, that one
determines whether the beliefs behind an emotion are valid and if the values that underlie
it are rational. Reason also enables one to re-program the subconscious so that the
automatized appraisals (beliefs, values) that give rise to specific emotions are changed.

Further, reason is used to identify defense mechanisms which may distort or prevent one
from experiencing emotions, and thus stultify their motivating power.
Reason is also the key to self-regulation, not only of ones emotions in the sense
described above, but also of ones life in general. Regulating ones life requires being
purposeful, which means setting long range goals and identifying plans which will enable
one to achieve them.. This process is not divorced from emotions, since one has to
identify what one wants (e.g., in ones career, in romance) before setting a goal to pursue
it, but reason must be used to identify ones desires and insure that they are rational if one
is to achieve ones long range goals. In short, reason, the volitional, active part of ones
mind, has to be in charge or one is left at the mercy of the emotions of the moment.
Some EI advocates might agree with all this and argue that EI, despite the
definitions usually given, really means being intelligent about emotions, that is,
recognizing their nature and proper function, their relationship to reason, and the need for
introspection. If this is what EI advocates mean by their concept, then what they are
actually referring to is not another form or type of intelligence but intelligence (the ability
to grasp abstractions) applied to a particular life domain: emotions. Intelligence, of
course, can be applied to any of thousands of life domains, but it does not follow that
there are thousands of types of intelligences. If we want to talk about how well a person
has mastered a certain domain, we already have a word for it: skill.
There is one more aspect to the EI story. In a later book, Primal Leadership,
Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee (2002) take EI theory a step further, into the realm of
leadership. Effective leadership traits which they claim to be based on EI include:
o Objective self-assessment

o Self-confidence and self-esteem
o Moral character (e.g., honesty and integrity)
o Adaptability and flexibility
o Achievement motivation
o Initiative and self-efficacy
o Organizational awareness (e.g., of organizational politics)
o Customer service
o The use of persuasion tactics
o Developing the ability of followers
o Initiating change
o Conflict management
o Team building
o The use of humor
Goleman et al. (2002) also argue that EI includes the use any or all of the six
following leadership styles:
o Visionary
o Coaching
o Affiliative
o Democratic
o Pacesetting
o Commanding
The question one must ask here is, given that leadership based on EI allegedly

encompasses such a long list of characteristics that people have associated with effective
leadership, what does EI not include? One thing is missing from the list: actual
In addition to making the concept of EI-leadership preposterously allencompassing, Goleman et al. (2002, p. ix) seriously misconstrue what organizational
leadership involves. They claim that The fundamental task of leaders is to create good
feelings in those they lead. This is simply not true. The function of organizations is to
attain goals; in the case of private organizations the goal is long-term profitability.
Organizations, other than psychotherapy clinics, are not in the feel good business.
Employee morale is important, but as a means to an end not as an end in itself divorced
from effectiveness.
It ironic that Goleman et als EI approach to leadership, despite its long list of
elements, omits any discussion of the intellectual aspects of leadershipaspects which
are critical to organizational success, including business success. These aspects require
the leaders of profit-making organizations to focus not inwards but outwards, at the
business environment. For example, does the leader know or understand:

Where the company should be heading?

The role of the different corporate functions?

The big picture? (Is there an integrating vision?)

How to fit the different parts and processes of the organization


The strategic and technological environments?

How to attain a competitive advantage?


How to achieve cash flow?

How to prioritize?

How to balance the short term with the long term?

How to judge talent when hiring and promoting?

How to build a culture?

How to formulate and enforce core values?

Note that performing these very complex tasks requires, among other qualities,
actual intelligence. Making oneself or other people feel good will not substitute for
intellectual deficiencies. Good leadership requires consistent rational thinking by a mind
that is able to grasp and integrate all the facts needed to make the business succeed.
Michael Dell (1999, p. 206) makes an important observation regarding the
relation of emotions and knowledge,
there are countless successful companies that are thriving now despite the fact that
they started with little more than passion and a good idea. There are also many
that failed, for the very same reason. The difference is that the thriving companies
gathered the knowledge that gave them a substantial edge over their competition,
which they used to improve their execution.those that didnt simply didnt
make it.
Leadership is not primarily about making people feel good; its about knowing
what you are doing and knowing what to do.
Despite the insuperable problems with the various definitions of emotional;
intelligence, there is no denying the importance of one element of EI in human life:

introspection. Introspection is a very important human skill; it involves identifying the
contents and processes of ones own mind. It is only through introspection that one can
monitor such things ones degree of focus, ones defensive reactions and ones emotional
responses and their causes. Such monitoring has important implications for self-esteem
and mental health.
Given their emphasis on introspection, it is ironic that advocates of EI show
virtually no understanding of the actual nature of emotions. For example, while granting
that emotions entail impulses to action, Goleman s (1995), discussion of their causes is
confined almost entirely to neurophysiology, especially brain structure. But psychology
cannot be reduced to neurophysiology (Bandura, 1997); ideas do not have the same
attributes as neurons. Especially unfortunateand mistaken (see Peikoff, 1991)-- is his
claim that, like a Frankenstein monster, we have an innate mind-body dichotomy, two
clashing brains, one rational and one emotional. This is reminiscent of Freuds arbitrary
division of the personality into opposing parts (id, ego and superego)a notion which
originated with Plato.
What is the error here? If EI advocates actually used introspection themselves,
they would observe that emotions, as noted earlier, are the product of subconscious ideas
stored knowledge about the objects and automatic value appraisals based on that
knowledge. Thus there is no inherent clash between reason and emotion (Peikoff, 1991).
As noted, it is through reason that we are able to acquire the knowledge and the values
which cause our emotions. It is through reason that we can identify and, through
reprogramming, change our emotions. It is through reason that we have the power to
decide whether and how to act in the face of emotions. Emotions obviously have a

neurophysiological aspect, but brain structure does not determine the content of our
knowledge nor of our values. Nor does it determine whether and how we use our reason,
since reasoning is a volitional process (Binswanger, 1991).
EIs extension into the field of leadership is even more unfortunate. By asserting
that leadership is an emotional process, Goleman denigrates the very critical role played
by rational thinking and actual intelligence in the leadership process. Given all the addons to the concept proposed by Goleman et al (2002), any associations between
leadership effectives and an EI scale that included these add-ons would be meaningless.
What, then, are we to conclude about EI?
1. The definition of the concept is constantly changing;
2. Most definitions are so all-inclusive as to make the concept unintelligible.
3. One definition (e.g., reasoning with emotion) involves a contradiction.
4. There is no such thing as actual emotional intelligence, although intelligence can be
applied to emotions as well as to other life domains.
A more productive approach to the EI concept might be to replace it with the
concept of introspective skill. (This would be a prerequisite to emotional self-regulation).
Alternatively, it might be asked whether EI could be relabeled and redefined as a
personality trait. Possibly, providing it was (re)defined intelligibly and that it was
differentiated from skills and from traits that have already been identified (e.g., empathy).
However, it is not at all clear at this point what such a trait would be called.
Ayn Rand (1975, p. 77) stated that, Definitions are the guardians of rationality,
the first line of defense against the chaos of mental disintegration. With respect to the

concept of EI, not to mention many other concept in psychology and management
(Locke, 2003), we are more in need of rational guardians that ever.

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