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The Left's War On Intelligence


Do Canadians have less "emotional intelligence" than Americans? The study that says so is part of a bogus campaign that has duped big business.

Originally published in the National Post newspaper.


Neil Seeman

 Author Notes

Lawyer and columnist, member of the Editorial Board of Canada's National Post newspaper

 Essay - 7/23/1999

Chances are you shook your head in disbelief when you spotted the Post's recent report heralding a new study that claimed to show Americans outrank Canadians when it comes to "emotional intelligence" (EI). First the U.S. has a better tax system; now comes a study claiming that Americans are emotionally superior to Canadians! No wonder Canada is lagging the U.S. in productivity.

But Canadians, it seems, are in good company. According to Multi-Health Systems Inc., the Toronto firm that conducted the U.S.-Canada EI study, an EI deficit may also be found in physicians (both general practitioners and specialists) and information-technology workers, two employee sets we would rank high in traditional smarts.

The concept of emotional intelligence was first introduced in the late 1980s by Professors Peter Salovey, of Yale University, and John Mayer, of the University of New Hampshire. They defined emotional intelligence as a specific set of potentially useful abilities: 1) the ability to accurately perceive, appraise and express emotion; 2) the ability to access feelings that facilitate thought; 3) the ability to understand emotional knowledge; and 4) the ability to regulate emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth.

It has, more recently, come to be valued as a skill represented by a "special sensitivity to the feelings of others." But the idea that Americans are "better" at this than Canadians -- or that anyone, for that matter, enjoys an emotional intellect superior to anyone else's -- has, to use psychological jargon, no face validity. In other words, it makes no sense.

All of this may strike you as somewhat academic, but the lead author of the study, Dr. Steven Stein (PhD) of Multi-Health Systems Inc., the North American leader in EI testing, isn't laughing. Neither are hundreds of CEOs and human resource professionals who see EI as the path to recruiting reliable, enthusiastic workers.

Dr. Stein insists his study proves "scientifically" that Canadians are less aggressive, less optimistic, and less socially responsible than their U.S. counterparts. But these attributes do not correspond to a sensitivity to the feelings of others. Qualities such as aggressiveness and optimism are personality traits rather than aptitudes.

After an inauspicious beginning on the fringe of academe, emotional intelligence has emerged as the chief artillery in the Left's new assault on conventional wisdom. Its proponents support a zealously egalitarian view of intelligence. There are many intelligences, it is claimed. Traditional IQ scores measure only one of them.

Emotional intelligence is traditionally omitted, but including it evens the score, making everyone essentially equal. It is, in a nutshell, the new Leninism.

Early childhood educators propound this dogma like the Communist Manifesto. Public school students are no longer graded. They receive, instead, "pupil progress reports" in which their academic improvement, their level of "motivation," and their "performance along the developmental continuum" are characterized in vague platitudes. More than 700 school districts in the U.S. are considering programs they hope will boost children's emotional intelligence.

Daniel Goleman, the best-selling author of Emotional Intelligence and the more recent Working with Emotional Intelligence, defines the essence of emotional literacy as self-knowledge -- something akin to Socrates' ancient admonition, "Know thyself." Mr. Goleman claims EI "is increasingly applied in choosing who will be hired and who will not, who will be let go and who retained, who passed over and who promoted."

EI has thus become the hottest rage in the business world, where the concept has spawned a burgeoning cottage industry of consultants and manuals and videotapes. Prestigious companies such as British Airways, Lucent Technologies, and Credit Suisse have become reverent devotees of the "soft skills" that EI celebrates. Most large companies have employed psychologists to develop what are known as "competency models" to aid them in identifying, training and fast-tracking leaders into executive positions.

Alas, they are wasting their time. Businesses and educators that rely on these tests, to the exclusion of traditional IQ tests, are unwitting pawns in the Left's illiberal agenda. EI tests are meant to present a counterfoil to the sad fact that not everyone is intellectually equal.

What's more, even if EI does exist, it's a slippery thing to measure. As pointed out by Eva Fisher-Bloom, an Ottawa psychotherapist currently completing her doctoral dissertation on EI, if emotional intelligence contributes to the broader concept of global intelligence, it makes little sense to measure it through self-reporting. And the test used by Dr. Stein, the EQi, is a self-report questionnaire. Think what would happen if, for instance, vocabulary were assessed by simply asking people if they believed they had a good vocabulary. Any test of emotional intelligence should test targeted aptitudes in the same way IQ tests do -- by asking objective questions, which are evaluated by a third-party observer.

Personality tests, on the other hand, do usually use a self-report format. This is significant because, if Dr. Stein's EI tests measure personality traits (he states, for instance, that they will be able to predict sociopathic traits in very young children), then how can educators and corporate managers hope to alter them? Personality traits, unlike abilities or aptitudes, are relatively stable and cannot be taught or trained.

Contrary to what proponents of EI will tell you, bona fide psychometrics hasn't changed much since Alfred Binet devised a test at the turn of the century to predict which French children would succeed or fail in school. The instruments we now use to test a child's IQ measure essentially the same aptitudes targeted by Binet -- memory, vocabulary, spatial comprehension, and the ability to draw analogies and solve puzzles -- because these are the skills historically associated with success in school and in the workplace.

Not incidentally, the most thoroughly documented evidence of the link between traditional intelligence and occupational success comes from the same book that attracted more scurrilous academic criticism from the Left than anything ever published in the English language: The Bell Curve, the 1994 work by Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein. Although its release was met with a barrage of (generally spurious) accusations of "racism" -- only a very small portion of their work dealt with intelligence differentials among ethnic groups -- the thesis of the first half of The Bell Curve has never been discredited: namely, that U.S. society, over the past half-century, has become increasingly meritocratic. In other words, wealth and other positive social outcomes have become more and more distributed according to people's intelligence, and less and less according to their social backgrounds.

While scientists may disagree about the extent to which intelligence is an inherited trait rather than a result of environment and upbringing, there is near-consensus around the idea that IQ is a measurable quantity. By contrast, the idea of emotional intelligence has proven powerful not because it is measurable or predictive of anything worth aiming at, but because it melds with the postmodern values and presuppositions of the educational establishment and of the neo-liberal culture.

Asked in 1998 for hard evidence proving the link between EI and job performance, Dr. Stein could only point to a master's thesis by a graduate student in the Philippines. In fact, the inventors of the concept, Professors Salovey and Mayer, estimate that EI accounts for as little as 5% of an average person's occupational achievement. They contend that many of the new EI enthusiasts are charlatans who have exploited a concept that was supposed to measure a specific set of abilities unrelated to general intelligence. Finally, there is no solid research showing that EI is a stand-alone variable distinct from personality, or that people with supposedly high EI scores benefit from better mental health.

So, if they want to help their students, teachers are best advised to focus on reading and arithmetic. And if corporate managers want to get serious about improving the productivity of the workforce, they would do well to focus their efforts away from pop personality markers and toward remedying functional illiteracy, a scourge that plagues 10% to 20% of the population. As Henry Mintzberg, recent appointee to the Order of Quebec, wrote presciently in his now-classic 1973 text, The Nature of Managerial Work: "The prime occupational hazard of the manager is superficiality."

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