Emotional vs Academic Intelligence: A Timetable Clash

The universal facial expressions; is this what your children might soon be taught to decipher as part of their curriculum? Image Credit: Booshoo via Flickr ( License )

You are waiting to go into an interview for a job you have applied for. Your achievements are as plain as the black and white letters on your CV, and yet here you are, sitting beside a group of other candidates who all look decidedly smug. Suddenly, you remember the old saying: “The best person for the job doesn’t always get it.”

For people like me, who do their best to mask inner anguish when confronted by job interviewers, this phrase is demoralising. If I can’t rely on my CV, then my abilities are being judged on a sweaty, tense 15 minutes in an office room while someone asks me, “How many uses can you think of for a kettle?” So just how much is our success judged on how adept our ‘people skills’ are? And if academic intelligence isn’t the most important thing, shouldn’t my high school have put more emphasis on ‘people skills’ than the Periodic Table and Pythagoras’ theorem?

The painfully vague term ‘people skills’ (the enigma that allows the chosen few to clinch those precious jobs) is now thought by psychologists to be connected to something known as ‘Emotional Intelligence’. As you would expect, Emotional Intelligence does what it says on the tin. The more emotionally intelligent you are, the more likely it is that you are better at telling how others are feeling, as well as being more in tune with your own emotions. Emotional intelligence is measured on 4 criteria: the ability to perceive emotions, understand emotions, regulate your own emotions and use emotion to solve tasks. You can find out how good you are at these four skills by taking an EQ-I test, the psychometric test for emotional intelligence. You’ll find yourself up against pictures of emotive faces that you must decipher the exact emotion of. You’ll also be grilled on how you would really handle socially stressful situations.1 Those who get a high EQ score can then use this information to help them know how best to interact in challenging social situations. Wish you had been taught this in school already? It gets better.

So if that’s what emotional intelligence is, why should it be taught in schools? Well there is some considerable evidence that emotional intelligence has what psychologists call ‘predictive validity’, that is that it predicts outcomes in life. Reuven Bar-On and researchers have administered the EQ-i to well over 40,000 participants in 36 countries, uncovering a vast array of evidence, which details the correlation between high emotional intelligence and career success. No matter if you are a doctor, banker, soldier or hockey player: career success is positively correlated with EQ. 2 Studies have even suggested a positive correlation exists not just between high EQ and good mental health, but also physical health.3 However, the excitement that these studies present shouldn’t make us completely ignorant to criticisms of this research. Different skills, associated with a high EQ score, e.g. reading others emotions compared to controlling our own emotions, have different impacts on success. This leads many to argue that emotional intelligence is merely a set of traits, that should be considered separately if studying predictive validity. Some studies, looking at company executives, have found that EQ scores do not predict reaching the top tiers of a company any more than other personality traits. 4

Even if there is enough evidence that a high EQ score can predict success; is this enough to warrant teaching it? After all, schools insist on teaching things like how to play hockey, how to draw: skills that would only affect the success of a handful of students (and thank goodness an appalling lack of skill at hockey didn’t impact my success.) If a recent break-up shocked you or if you’ve had a recent angry outburst, you might conclude that reading emotions and keeping your emotions in check aren’t really your strong suits. Fear not! Various studies have looked into whether emotional intelligence can be taught. The good news: it looks like it can. A recent study trained participants over 4 weeks to better recognise and manage emotions. This involved simple lessons, such as participating in role-play, practising decoding facial expressions and learning coping strategies for managing emotions. The result? Significant improvement in identifying and managing emotions compared to a control group (who had taken no lessons) 5 .Since this study, others have found similar effects. With a wealth of evidence building, it was only a matter of time before someone thought, “why don’t we teach this stuff in schools already?!” As a result, emotional intelligence is now taught as part of Social and Emotional Learning(SEL). Lessons include: learning what non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions, mean and role playing how to best react in demanding social situations. The results of SEL’s effectiveness are seemingly profound: higher academic success and lower levels of misbehaviour. 6 A teacher’s dream, right?

However, recently, a handful of studies have begun to suggest that teaching emotional intelligence may have sinister consequences. Those with high emotional intelligence are far better at feigning emotions, measured by their ability to minimise ‘emotional leakage’, i.e the surfacing of their true feelings. They aren’t flawless liars. If they truly feel an emotion at that moment in time, many participants showed a less convincing expression with prolonged emotional leakage. However, those with high EQ scores are considerably better than those in control groups at concealing emotions on many accounts 7. What’s more, a recent study suggests that those with high EQ are more capable of influencing others’ emotions, based on their own ambitions.8 It certainly makes sense. If you can manipulate others’ emotions and you are after that golden job position, it might only be natural to aim to bewitch the interviewer into thinking that you are the next best thing to sliced bread. We have to consider then, that lying and manipulating others may be the kinds of opportunity that coincide with being more in tune with others’ emotions. If so, is it wise to jump straight into teaching young children the ways of the emotionally intelligent?

So, should emotional intelligence have its pride and place as a cornerstone of every education system? The evidence that it can be taught is convincing, as is evidence of its predictive validity. However, there is a niggling doubt in the scientific community that the overwhelming claims linking emotional intelligence to success might not be so concrete. Teaching it may even lead to some unpredictable and interesting changes in the psyche of students, with the tools of emotional manipulation more readily at their disposal. Despite these reservations, there is considerable evidence to suggest we could even out the ‘emotional playing field’ by teaching emotional intelligence in schools, giving everyone the chance to use emotion as a tool to success. Would I have liked this chance? Would I like the chance to be sitting, waiting to go into that job interview, knowing that I have an awesome EQ score of 116? Yes I would. I think we all would. The education system might be giving people the chance to develop a more varied skill set for success. That might just be a chance worth taking.

However, I’d like to leave one final argument for you to consider. It’s true that having high emotional intelligence may result in success. As such, it makes sense that schools should teach it. It’s also true that the ‘best person for the job doesn’t always get it.’ Is it right that emotional intelligence is often valued more highly than academic intelligence? By teaching emotional intelligence, are we creating a society that values “people skills” more than academic achievement? With that in mind, soon all candidates waiting for a job interview might be sitting practicing fake smiles and memorising jokes to amuse the interviewer. For my sake, and that of all the others lacking emotional intelligence out there, I hope academic success and integrity will always win out in the end.



  1. Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in organisiations. The Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) 
  2. Stein SJ, Book H. The EQ edge: Emotional intelligence and your success. Vol. 30. Wiley. 2010.
  3. Martins A, Ramalho N, Morin E. A comprehensive meta-analysis of the relationship between emotional intelligence and health. Personality and Individual Differences. 2010;  49(6), 554-564
  4. Waterhouse L. Multiple intelligences, the Mozart effect, and emotional intelligence: A critical review. Educational Psychologist. 2006; 41(4), 207-225.
  5. Nelis D, Quoidbach J, Mikolajczak M, Hansenne M. Increasing emotional
    intelligence:(How) is it possible?. Personality and Individual Differences. 2009; 47(1), 36-41.
  6. Goleman D. Emotional Intelligence 
  7. Porter S, Brinke LT, Baker A, Wallace B. Would I lie to you? “Leakage” in deceptive facial expressions relates to psychopathy and emotional intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences. 2011; 51(2), 133-137
  8. Nozaki, Y., & Koyasu, M.The Relationship between Trait Emotional Intelligence and Interaction with Ostracized Others’ Retaliation. 2013; PloS one,8(10), e77579.

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