Why it is hard to measure Emotional Intelligence?

Published on March 22, 2013

“The sign of an intelligent people is their ability to control their emotions by the application of reason.”

This quote by the 20th century writer Marya Mannes sums up has Western thought has subordinated emotion to intelligence since just after the time of Charles Darwin. Darwin touched on the importance of emotions when he argued that they play a role in the adaptation and thus survival of humans. Later, in 1994 fifty-two scientists offered a statement defining intelligence, hoping that it would prove instructive to the scientific community. They claimed that intelligence is:

“A very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—"catching on," "making sense" of things, or "figuring out" what to do”

Now, Gerald Matthews and his collaborators are arguing if and how intelligence might be distinguished between general versus emotional. In their paper “Emotional Intelligence: A promise unfulfilled?” the authors warn that Emotional Intelligence (EI) is a relatively new construct and “establishing a strong scientific case for its relevance to theory and practice faces a number of severe challenges and obstacles, including uncertainty over its cross-cultural generalization.” They lay out a detailed case of the seven major challenges to EI and supply recommendations for overcoming them.

1. Lack of clarity of conceptualization. Some complained that the concept was too broad and even included non-intellectual characteristics related to ethics and morality. The authors suggest that this is a result of using just one term (EI) to describe multiple traits. They offer four distinct traits (temperament, information processing, emotion regulation and emotional knowledge/skills) which they claim would serve the purpose of more specific identification.

2. Lack of a “gold standard” for measurement. There was little correlation between EI tests and other standardized ability tests such as the MSCEIT measurements of intelligence. To deal with the problem of trying to measure multiple constructs with one test, the authors suggest the use of multimedia situational judgment tests which measure how one person responds to different situations.

3. Overlap with existing constructs. As a distinct quality, EI should not overlap too much with existing ability and personality constructs. EI results showed very high correlation with personality traits of the Five Factor Model. The authors concede that their suggested terms (temperament, information processing, emotion regulation and emotional knowledge/skills) also substantially overlap with other personality constructs and suggest that more research is needed.

4. Lack of theoretical understanding. Instead of identifying neurological correlates and cognitive process of EI, early studies were itemized, descriptive lists of qualities. Reiterating that this would be a difficult problem regardless of the construct used, the authors make the suggestion to “tie theory to the specific contexts in which skills are learned, such as the workplace and intimate relationships.”

5. Limitations in criterion-related validity evidence. Much of the criterion validity of EI questionnaires were either self-reported or had great overlap with existing personality trait assessments, casting doubt the validity or usefulness of EI. The authors approach this problem by suggesting stronger measurement and theory; and the willingness to subordinate some elements of EI to others with regard to the usefulness in real life. “For example,” they argue, “rapid processing of emotional stimuli may be less important than acquired context-bound skills.”

6. Uncertain practical relevance. It is unclear how increasing EI would benefit one’s emotional functioning in society. The authors argue that describing EI elements with an emphasis on skills would help resolve this problem.

7. Cultural influences on EI. Commenting on the cross-cultural applicability of a western-derived EI assessment, the authors doubt that it would apply to countries such as Japan. They assert:

“…[Japanese] cultures have a more collectivist experience of both positive and negative emotions. For example, Japanese people appear to be more prone to socially engaging emotions, such as friendly feelings and guilt, whereas North Americans experience disengaging emotions, such as pride and anger, more intensely….”

The authors seemed to argue in a rather non-specific way that the problem could be rectified by researching “basic information processing routines, such as those for facial emotion perception, to be somewhat robust across cultures, to the extent that they depend directly on brain structures such as the amygdala.”

They suggest that “EI may be best understood as a collection of rather different types of construct that may be only weakly inter-related, rather than as a unitary factor akin to general intelligence (“IQ”). This “multipolar” approach may resolve the various problematic issues…focusing research on more narrowly defined but conceptually coherent research domains may be a more productive strategy than seeking to define an all‐embracing general EI.”



Matthews, Gerald; Zeidner, Moshe; Roberts, Richard D. Emotional intelligence: A promise unfulfilled? Japanese Psychological Research, Vol 54(2), May 2012, 105-127.
doi: 10.1111/j.1468-5884.2011.00502.x

Category(s):Emotional Intelligence

Written by:

Tony Brown

Tony Brown is a former U.S. Army (Reserve) Medical Officer, and currently completing his studies as an M.D./PhD/MBA candidate, with a research thesis titled, “Pharmacology and the Neurological Correlates of Consciousness.”