The Myth of “Emotional Intelligence”

by | Dec 16, 2000

Q: There’s a new corporate term in use lately — “emotional intelligence.” People are even being tested for their “emotional intelligence” levels. Is there any value in this? A: The very concept of “emotional intelligence” is preposterous. Your intelligence does not come from your emotions. Your intelligence is a consequence of your ability to think […]

Q: There’s a new corporate term in use lately — “emotional intelligence.” People are even being tested for their “emotional intelligence” levels. Is there any value in this?

A: The very concept of “emotional intelligence” is preposterous. Your intelligence does not come from your emotions. Your intelligence is a consequence of your ability to think rationally, abstractly, and conceptually.

Emotions are automatic thoughts. Sometimes called feelings or “instincts,” emotions come up in your consciousness (often very briefly) without conscious effort on your part. You can either choose to identify them or not, but you have no direct choice about the fact they come up in the first place. Emotions and feelings are your subconscious mind’s way of “talking” to you.

Consider an example. You meet somebody new. Your conscious mind takes a neutral stance towards the individual. After all, you don’t really know him. Your subconscious mind, however, might send you a message something like this: “He seems kind of shifty-eyed. And slick. Watch out for him.” Or: “He seems very bright and life-loving. I need to get to know him better!”

Is there any rational basis for listening to these emotions? Or might it be prejudicial and arbitrary to do so? This is for your conscious, thinking mind to decide.

Sometimes automatic thoughts end up being entirely correct, even though you might not know this at first. In some cases, an emotion could actually lead you to objective truth that your rational mind has not yet discovered. But there’s no way you can evaluate the emotion as valid or not without first subjecting it to the use of reason. So even if your subconscious “instincts” are crucial in problem-solving, as some successful people claim, those instincts are worthless if there’s never any objective thinking introduced to assess their accuracy.

Even to state, after the fact, “My instincts really saved me” is to necessarily imply: “I checked my instincts out against the facts of what actually happened, and they measured up.” Of course, what about the instances when you chose not to listen to your “instincts,” and you’re glad you did not; or perhaps you did so and it led you to an error? People often forget these instances.

Advocates of the “emotional intelligence” notion talk about the distinction between “intelligence of the academic variety” versus intelligence of the “social” variety. By “academic” they essentially mean conceptual, rational intelligence (the only kind there is). They clearly favor intelligence of the social variety, defined as such: “By contrast [with rational intelligence], men with the traits that mark emotional intelligence are poised and outgoing, committed to people and causes, sympathetic and caring, with a rich but appropriate emotional life — they’re comfortable with themselves, others, and the social universe they live in.” [See]

This sets up a false alternative: Either you must be rational while disconnected from people and emotions altogether; or you must be connected to people and emotions, while failing to be intelligent in the usual sense of the term. Either you must be rational and emotionally repressed; or you must be guided primarily by your emotions (which is somehow supposed to be “empathic”) while minimizing the use of reason and logic.

In reality, choosing reason as your sole means of ascertaining reality need not mean eliminating emotions from your life altogether. There’s nothing about being rational which prevents you from enjoying and experiencing your emotions. [For more details, see “Effective Therapy” and “Grow Up America!”]

Also, a word about empathy. Empathy is typically associated with emotions. But empathy is impossible without thought. Parents, when trying to teach children empathy, have to stop their children and encourage them to think: “Johnny, how would you feel if your brother took your toy without asking? If he has no right to do so, then why do you have a right to take his toy without asking?” The goal here is to encourage the child to think, not merely feel: to recognize, through abstract thought, that the other person values his property just like you do. If Johnny grows up to be a thief, it will be a lack of thought — and the presence of an unthinking indulgence of his emotions — which made him a thief.

Also, these notions of being “committed to people and causes” are vague and undefined. What does this exactly mean? Isn’t a researcher, for example, who is socially shy but very involved in his work committed to a cause? Isn’t a businessman who works 7-day weeks building his chain of stores, instead of going to cocktail parties, passionately committed to a cause? Some of the most passionate people you will ever meet are deeply committed to their careers.

Also, what about an evil person like Adolf Hitler? Wasn’t he committed to people and causes, and didn’t he have strong emotions — twisted and irrational as they were? Elevating emotions to the level of intelligence, with no reference to the objective value (or lack of value) within those emotions, can be downright dangerous.

If you read between the lines, what’s called emotional intelligence sounds more like political intelligence. Politics, in this context, means the capacity to make friends and get along with others. It can also mean sacrificing rational individuality for what the herd or collective seems to feel it wants. Political people are often dishonest people, because they are telling you what they believe you want to hear: “I can feel your pain.”

Glorifying “emotional intelligence” elevates the ability to make connections and friends — at most, a sideline in a productive person’s life — to the status of conceptual thought. It implies that if only there were more political Bill Clinton-types in the world, and fewer scientific and business geniuses, the world would be a better place.

Imagine, for a moment, what such a world would be like. There would be no scientific or business geniuses to provide us with all the technology, medicine, cell phones, automobiles and the countless other things we enjoy. Instead, there would be hordes of sneering political types who know how to slap each other’s backs and kiss babies. Civilization would quickly collapse. This is where the glorification of so-called “emotional intelligence” leads. It’s a vicious error, and an entirely corrupt concept.

For a more detailed discussion on the issue of repression versus emotionalism, see Chapter Three of Dr. Hurd’s book “Effective Therapy” available elsewhere on this website, and in bookstores.

Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of "Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)" and "Grow Up America!" Visit his website at:

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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