Tom Bennett

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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.