Emotional Intelligence. It doesn't actually exist, does it?

I'm with stupid.
Emotional Intelligence (EI) has appeared on my radar this weekend, as a few teachers asked me the best way to teach it. The problem is:
  • I don't think we can teach it. 
  • I'm fairly sure we can't assess such a thing anyway. 
  • And I'm also pretty sure that it doesn't exist anyway. 
So, you know, that makes it rather hard to advise on it.

 Why do we want to be arbiters of children’s emotions? The moral flaw in the EI argument is that it presumes a level of authority over the individual that we might genuinely balk at accepting: authority over their feelings. Who am I to tell someone else to feel? How long, for example, is it appropriate to grieve? If someone loses their life’s companion, and then starts to drink, or mope, or hide from the world, we might hope and advise them to get busy living again, but really, who gets to decide what the appropriate reaction is? If someone subjected people I love to torture, I hope I would have the integrity to avoid rampaging in revenge on them; but unless you’ve been in that situation, what is appropriate? I have the right to tell children, within prescribed limits, how to behave in school; as a matter of practicality, safety and efficiency. But should I be able to tell them how to feel? When I am not even sure myself what such a thing would mean?

This level of assumed expertise is perhaps one of the biggest flaws with those who claim we should teach EI. How many of us would say that we were experts in human interaction? That we understand the moods of others to an expert level? That we knew the appropriate emotional response to any given situation? Some schools have begun to teach lessons in Happiness, as if the solution to such things had been cracked, codified and reduced to a learnable structure. Good luck to them. How many instructors in such things, would say they were happy? On a scale of ten? And what would such a scale mean anyway, when happiness is an internally experienced, subjective quality. What is my six compared to your four? How would we know? This is the realm of the aesthete and the moralist; it is certainly not the realm of the scientist.

There is no evidence that emotional intelligence is something that even exists, because there is no agreed definition of what it means. There is certainly no evidence, as Goleman claims there is, that it is the polar opposite from IQ, and that it is something separate form it. Many critics have pointed out that EI as Goleman defines it, is simply a skill; a correspondent of general intelligence and perceptiveness- I have high EI when I can recognise behaviours that signify emotional states in others, and I have good reactions to those emotional states in as much as I react in a way that seem sot benefit myself and the other person concerned.

There is no evidence that it can be taught formally. Even the DfE has rubbed its eyes and woken up from the dream:


In 2010, the DfE commissioned another piece of research, The SEAL Program in Secondary Schools, by Humphrey, Lendrum and Wigelsworth.  The aim of this research was to evaluate the impact of the SEAL program on measurable outcomes. Its findings were hard reading for anyone interested in SEAL: it said that implementation of SEAL had been ‘mixed’, with resistance from some schools (fancy that). The assessment of impact was even more damning:

‘Finally, in terms of impact, our analysis of pupil-level outcome data indicated that SEAL (as implemented by schools in our sample) failed to impact significantly upon pupils’ social and emotional skills, general mental health difficulties, pro-social behaviour or behaviour problems.’

Which is social science-ese for ‘Three hours in the oven, it’s a turkey.’ Want more?

‘In relation to school-level outcome data, our analyses indicated that SEAL (as implemented by schools in our sample) failed to have a positive impact, although the results were less straightforward here. Analysis of school climate scores indicated significant reductions in pupils’ trust and respect for teachers, liking for school, and feelings of classroom and school supportiveness during SEAL implementation.’

Everyone’s a winner, I’m sure you’ll agree. At the time of writing (late 2012), support for the SEAL program has melted like snow, but like zombie facts, that refuse to die no matter how discredited, zombie attitudes persist. The language, the vocabulary of emotional intelligence lingers on in much school discourse; it only takes a brief search of the internet to find scores of thousands of mentions of it in relation to schools. A cursory search of school websites and prospectuses will find EI trumpeted as a major part of the school ethos or vision. Ofsted reports are still heavy with the language of EI. This perhaps indicates that once adopted systematically as part of a new dogma, even the removal of formal recognition fails to remove all traces of the roots, once they have taken hold.

Emotional intelligence, appropriately enough, isn't rational. It's the well-meant invention of people who believe that all difficulties of the human condition can be solved directly, by formal instruction. I don;t believe they can. In fact, in some ways, the pain is part of who we are.


  1. "And what would such a scale mean anyway, when happiness is an internally experienced, subjective quality."

    Well, not necessarily. Quite apart from all the metaethical discussions this leads into - (what would Bentham have to say about your rejection of objective happiness?) happiness, or at least, well-being and involvement is a quality assessed in primary schools, especially in the EYFS. Indeed, it is one of the core barometers of progress. In young children, at least, there is a huge body of evidence to suggest that wellbeing can be deduced from behaviour. I.e. the evaluation of happiness is broadly scientific.

    So too, in modern analytic psychology there is clear and substantive agreement over scientific measures of happiness (as there is of depression, addiction and unhappiness.)

    I think you are absolutely right to believe we have little or no ability to teach these skills, but the idea that we cannot measure them is way off the mark. I mean, to put it quite straightforwardly, I can look at every class I teach and make a broad evaluation about the happiness of the individuals in front of me. It is true that there are no concrete answers to questions like, 'How long should I morn the death of a husband?' but that doesn't discount the idea that happiness can be measured.

    1. Thanks for the post. Happiness really can't be measured, because the concept of happiness is a) an abstract with as many meanings as people to understand them and b) Subjective, and therefore cannot be metrified. Any proxy indicators we use to assess it will always be contestable in a way that, say height is not.

      I think we are still at the same problem the early utilitarians faced: yes, we might broadly agree on the kind of things that make us happy, but these are only agreements rather than objectively verifiable qualities, and exceptions abound. I prefer a curry to a cricket bat in the kisser, but for some people, the latter is a good night out....

  2. Evidence for happiness aside, I also doubt that emotional intelligence can really be taught, but do think parents and teachers alike can sow the seed by helping young people 1. pause before letting an emotional response govern their actions, and 2. be aware that other people have emotions too.

    Beyond that...

  3. Hi

    First, you appear to be conflating emotional intelligence with the 'happiness' agenda. They are separate issues (although there is a link).

    From my understanding, EI is not about telling people what they should be feeling or being the arbiter of other people's emotions. There are several key elements of EI:

    1. An awareness of one's own emotions and their impact on one's choices and behaviours
    2. An ability to manage (not suppress) one's emotional responses in order to increase the chances of positive outcomes for oneself and for others.
    3. An awareness of other people's emotional states and their impact on behaviour.
    4. An ability to handle or respond to other people's emotions in a way which increases the chances of positive outcomes for oneself and for the other.

    None of that involves telling other people what to feel. In fact, point 3 involves understanding that people differ in how they respond emotionally to events.

    The well-being agenda (sometimes oversimplified as the happiness agenda) does come into EI at points 2 and 4. There is an assumption that people will, on the whole, prefer positive outcomes. Whether this is borne out by real life is questionable. Many people behave in ways which are self-handicapping and which seem guaranteed to lead to negative outcomes. But perhaps that is because they have low emotional intelligence.

    The well-being agenda arising from positive psychology acknowledges that 'negative' emotions are a natural part of human experience, but they point out that flourishing seems to occur when people experience positive emotions slightly more often than negative ones. They also believe that you can change your default emotional reactions through deliberate practice, something which cognitive behavioural therapy has shown to be true for many people.

    Does EI exist? No, but then many useful psychological constructs don't 'exist' in the sense that they merely represent a naming of one part of an irreducible complexity. By that same token, IQ does not exist, it is merely the naming of one part of the complex whole that is human cognition. A better question would be 'Is it a potentially useful naming?'.

    Can EI be taught? Well, research on mindfulness, CBT and Acceptance & Commitment Therapy would seem to indicate that abilities in areas 1 and 2 (self-awareness and self-management) can be increased through guided practice.

    Approaches such as Non-Violent Communication, the use of narrative techniques and the experience of restorative justice programmes have shown that it is possible, at least for some people, to increase empathy and emotional understanding.

    None of this means, of course, that EI can be taught formally in a school setting. Many of the approaches I have referred to require a long-term commitment to practise new ways of thinking and responding. A better approach to teaching EI to children might be to educate parents (and possibly teachers) first.

    1. Thanks for a literate and thoughtful response; very much appreciated. I concur with a lot of what you've said; as a teacher, my main objection is against the simplistic assumption that the therapeutic techniques you describe can be delivered in a meaningful way in a classroom of twenty five students while simultaneously teaching them trigonometry. The best we can usually do is to maintain a behaviourist approach towards their conduct, and with habituation, promote the modification of their characters by a process of reinforcement and attrition.

      The conflation of EI and the happiness agenda is also a bugbear- I have read so many different papers, articles, guidelines and books which all have different ideas about what EI means. That's what I mean when I say it doesn't exist in a meaningful way. What you've described strikes me as sensible- but you are one tribe amongst many in this debate. And until EI achieves some kind of coherency, it's best left out of the classroom.

  4. Like all of Gardner's multiple-intelligences (EI is simply the latest spin off) emotional intelligence is the product not of clinical, but of social psychology, a very different academic discipline. Even Gardner himself has expressed surprise at the way educational policy makers and teachers have run away with his idea. But when teachers abandon academic scholarship for politics and social engineering, no one should be surprised at the meddling with individual freedoms that ensues.

    1. In my experience, it's not the teachers who dabble in this kind of sorcery, but well-meaning educational researchers, and then administrators.....

  5. You will keep stiring up the hornets' nest... ;o)

  6. pseudoscientific claptrap beloved by too many in teaching.

    Not worth wasting any more time on

  7. PARENTS! It doesn't matter a jot what you try and 'teach' in terms of EI, if the child is going home to a home where their mum/dad/whatever adult is unable or unwilling to provide emotional warmth and containment. I should know - I work as a family support worker across 18 schools in west London and believe you me, if the child is not supported at home, the school may as well be peeing in the wind.

  8. David, yours is a concise and sincere précis. It sets out the parameters and tensions between what schools say they want (happiness and EQ) and the constructs. We are bringing together two disciplines and they each need to learn from the other. Learn to walk first, learn to learn then, learn to live happily ever after.

    The debate is not about academic/politics/semantics nor is it about clinical/therapeutic. But, it is way above claptrap!

    SEAL, EQ (or EI) and happiness are interconnected. The debate should centre upon whether or not they can/cannot be directly taught. The assertion was not whether or not EQ should be a part of our values it was about didactic versus nurture (correct me if I am wrong Tom). I feel experience in our field of working with young people with complex needs, suggests that direct delivery of SEAL is useful as a stimulant for ethical debate. However, we have more successes - through restorative justice/approaches, mentoring, brief therapy, coaching - in a student-led model whereby the children ask questions of EQ to self-assess. This is very different to the didactic (and potentially pointless) delivery model and is integrated into the school systemically.

    Our model is based upon CBT and NLP and I would respectfully suggest, from experience, that there is truth in the notion that EQ cannot be formally taught as these therapies do not fit a didactic model. And, there is definitely truth in the assertion that teachers need to be educated first. Otherwise this complex issue (and universally desired outcomes) is in the hands of those with a superficial understanding of the processes required to enhance EQ. Indeed a longer term commitment requires a model which is re-visited regularly throughout school life and beyond into homes and families.

    It is the approach that is successful because it goes beyond a classroom. It is part of a culture and creates an ethos where the "difficulties of the human condition can be solved directly ...". Formal instruction only provides knowledge and, knowledge does not develop EQ. Insight into ourselves is required to provide context and deeper understanding. Instead then, it is interactive and largely student led to allow those taking part to form their own desired outcomes - this is what gives so much potential for personal growth.

    We are an EISAF Initiative Pathway school in partnership with TES, TES Prime and Packtypes looking to develop the use of EQ tools in a variety of contexts including a more structured classroom model. Ground breaking we hope, and well worth at least a quick look at;


    (no we’re not on commission,we are a partner, and a paying partner at that!).

    In conclusion, please do not write off EQ as a brief fad! If ours is a reflection of the powerful impact of EQ, results are there to speak for themselves:
    • Hugely reduced exclusion rates in East Lancashire;
    • Outreach in mainstream increased by 800% in 3 years;
    • Partnerships with all sector schools, agencies and forums;
    • "school causing concern" to Good in every judgement (May 2012);
    • Invited into Pennine Lancashire Education Leadership Academy and proposed SCITT for ITT.
    No coincidence but the result of developing skills and understanding (staff) alongside improving practices (outreach, intervention and multiagency support).

    So, can EQ, or EI if you prefer, be taught? Absolutely. But only by those who understand the principles and practices involved. It cannot be delivered effectively in a teacher-led didactic style but can be very effectively nurtured in a student-led/teacher-facilitated model. This requires great skill and confidence alongside outstanding understanding of the children and their needs. Therefore, you also need brilliant staff – we are blessed with all of these. We are certainly not their yet and fully accept that this EQ work remains somewhat embryonic and, in that sense, I can understand some cynicism, but, I sincerely hope this helps and welcome any responses – or visits if you fancy a look around?

  9. Hi Bock

    Thanks for a very considered and detailed response- genuinely. A pleasure to hear your ideas. But may I sound a note of caution- your work is based on NLP? My understanding of the work of Bandler etc is that it is generally not accepted by the wider scientific community as having much justification. On that basis I would struggle to accept that an approach which emerged from that background would be supported by empirical evidence itself.

    Do you have any published research that might back up the claims you make to efficacy? Or if not published, some sources for those claims? For example, I'm delighted to hear that the schools in which you worked achieved improved rates of exclusion etc- but what work was done to factor out other possible influences on these outcomes? Eg did school leaders simply exclude less in response to a perceived need to do so? What other influences could have led to the outcomes? I'm not trying to be picky (well, not in an unnecessary way) but in my experience, many claims are made in education that lack rigour and veracity, and its important to establish good evidence from bad.


  10. Thanks Tom - my pleasure! Sorry not to get back for a while - busy bee.

    I can see why you might have concerns around the potential for NLP to provide empirical evidence and the possibility of other factors influencing our claims. However, our work is not based on NLP alone but rather uses the pillars of NLP as part of a wider toolkit including; Solution Focussed Brief Therapy; Cognitive Behavioural Therapy; Assertive Mentoring; Restorative Practices; Counselling and good old fashioned cuddly and fluffy mentoring (or rapport as we like to call it!).

    The evidential support from our claims, whilst anecdotal - due to the very nature of some of our work - at times, is largely derived from feedback received from pastoral managers, headteacher and deputies. The empirical evidence comes from profiling tools used by EP's and my team and is set against pre-determined and agreed outcomes so that there is indeed a set of measures which can be interrogated with rigour and veracity. I would, and regularly do, welcome closer observation and scrutiny from external agents to verify our claims as do the 16 mainstream secondary schools, numerous primary schools and special schools with whom we work. Alongside these external validation opportunities, we also have SSG support from our Local Authority to monitor and evaluate our evidence base and, of course, Ofsted who accepted our evidence in coming to a judgement of Good under the new short notice framework.

    In short, I understand the lack of empirical data but that in itself does not detract from reason and evidence it is rather the domain of the scientist who disbelieves until the absolute truth is uncovered. This is fair and appropriate but extraordinarily difficult in measuring changes brought about by tools designed by humans to determine exactitudes in "progress" within the human condition as a plethora of psychiatric and psychological theses aptly demonstrate!

    I hope to stay in touch Tom, or maybe you could pop in for a look yourself?

  11. EI is incredibly important. It's about knowing what you feel and why and managing this so you live a more productive and happy life. Therapists, coaches and counsellors are focussing on this as the efficacy of their work. And they produce marked improvements in people's lives. Emotions drive everything we attribute as either good or bad, happy or sad, want or don't want. Their fundamental nature is part of the reason they need to be understood way better than they are currently. Use of EQ assessments are being used by thousands every year to recruit the 'right' people for roles from CEO's to Sales People to Air Force Para Rescue Jumpers (US AF). It works and does so often to a greater degree than by picking from IQ, technical tests or other academic qualifications and yet we seem to laud these much higher than EQ. I think it might be useful to look into these as they're shown to work and why emotions are so fundamental to us before entirely dissing something without actually knowing anything about it. I see people creating great awareness of themselves and others through simple EQ practices. The benefits are manyfold, obvious to neuroscientists and health practitioners alike. This may be a more logical, scientific approach to examine these. Just saying.


Post a Comment