Ecological and Emotional Intelligence: A Q&A with Daniel Goleman

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


There was a time not too long ago when many believed that your intelligence quotient, or IQ, predicted your path in life; that how smart you were — how quickly you could solve a puzzle, learn a language, understand a passage of reading — was the indicator of how well you would do in life, both professionally and personally.

Then, in 1995, Dr. Daniel Goleman, a Harvard-trained psychologist who was working as a science reporter for The New York Times, published “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.” Goleman based his book in part on the research of Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, who, in a 1990 article called “Emotional Intelligence,” defined emotional intelligence as “the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”

Using brain and behavioral research, Goleman explained why people with high IQs often didn’t succeed, and those with not-such-high IQs did unexpectedly well.

“We have gone too far in emphasizing the value and the import of the purely rational — of what IQ measures in human life,” he wrote. “For better or worse, intelligence can come to nothing when the emotions hold sway.” The book was on The New York Times bestseller list for a year and a half, with more than five million copies in print worldwide in 30 languages.

Golemen went on to write about emotional intelligence, or EQ, in the workplace, in relationships, in the educational field and in leadership roles. In 2009, he turned his attention to the environment and wrote “Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything.” But EQ is still so popular that he published another book, “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Goleman spoke exclusively with Brain World about managing your emotions, meditating, and impacting your environment.

Brain World: It’s been more than 15 years since you first wrote “Emotional Intelligence,” and many, many others now use the term. What does it mean at its most basic form?

Daniel Goleman: Emotional intelligence refers to how we manager our selves and our relationships.

BW: You have said that noncognitive intelligence is just as vital and important as an individual’s IQ. There seem to be times when what you know cognitively and what you feel don’t match up. What are the major differences between the two, and what happens when they come into conflict?

DG: Emotional intelligence integrates several levels of brain systems. As I write in “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights,” there’s new data that shows that the systems that IQ rely on in the brain are discretely different from those that self-management and relationship skills rely on.

Part of the self-management skills includes the cognitive unconscious, which is the out-of-awareness management of information data we’ve accrued over our lifetime. So when you make an important decision like, “Should I marry this person compared to all the other people I’ve dated?” or “Should I leave this job for another?” these aren’t questions you can answer using your cognitive abilities alone. You have to draw on all your life experiences, and so it’s sometimes the case, as you point out, where rationally your mind is saying, “You know, she’s not really right,” but everything else in you is saying, “Yes, she is”; or, in a business situation, it’s sometimes the case where people face decisions where the data looks good but there’s something about this deal that doesn’t feel right.

And the question is: Which should you go with? And the answer is: both. The hard-to-articulate but real-felt sense — which is how the unconscious mind gives you its answer; a gut sense — is data too, and so you have to put it all together.

There was a study done on California entrepreneurs who have great success and how they make business decisions, and it showed that they all gathered lots of data and looked at lots of numbers and information, but then they weighed it against their gut sense, and if it didn’t feel right they wouldn’t go ahead.

BW: One of the major components of emotional intelligence is the ability to delay one’s impulses, and how this relates to advantages and disadvantages along economic lines.

DG: This is some really interesting data on basically the ability of the prefrontal areas to inhibit amygdala-driven impulses. Those impulses may be to hit somebody, or to run, or to eat something. The simple ability to not immediately say “yes” to that turns out to be quite powerful. Maturity has been defined as lengthening the gap between impulse and action. There was a study done in New Zealand where they looked at all the kids in one city born over a year and studied them intensively between the ages of 3 and 11. They were assessed every two years. They were then tracked down again 32 years later. They found that the children’s ability to delay gratification, which is what they studied in childhood, predicted their income more powerfully than the income of family origin or their IQ. It also predicted their health and also whether or not they had a criminal record.

BW: You discuss the importance of teaching emotional intelligence in an academic/educational setting. How do you go about doing that?

DG: There’s a wonderful movement in K-12 education called social emotional learning, which is being driven by a group called the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning at the University of Illinois, which I co-founded and originally began at Yale. Emotional intelligence really is an argument for this kind of education, because if these life skills are essential for a successful life, shouldn’t we be teaching them to all our kids? So they develop hundreds of curricula that integrate lessons in self-awareness and managing your distressing emotions and handling impulses and empathy and collaborations, and these integrate very eloquently within the standard academic curriculum.

There is a meta-analysis of child development that was just published earlier this year in a major psychology journal that looked at studies with a total of 270,000 students, some with these courses and some without, and it was found, through this meta-analysis in schools that had it, there was a 10 percent better prosocial behavior — kids liking school, not cutting class — and 10 percent less antisocial behavior, like fights and substance abuse and violence, etc. Bigger changes occurred in schools that needed it the most, and academic achievement scores went up by 11 percent. It is a real win-win.

BW: You discuss gender differences and emotional intelligence. Do you think there is a big gap among the genders regarding emotional intelligence?

DG: There is a caveat when you talk about behavioral gender differences. From a statistical point of view, you are talking about two very largely overlapping bell curves. On average, most men are like most women in most capacities, and most women are like most men. On either end, you find differences. One of the largest differences between the genders has to do with the disproportionate amount of men with Asperger’s syndrome, which drags down the gender total on empathy and social skills.

On the other hand, I also think that some women are much more attuned to understanding and thinking about and perceiving other people’s feelings, and that leads to systematic gender differences where women will be more empathic than men. (Not necessarily cognitive empathy taking another’s perspective — but rather emotional empathy.) I suspect that has to do with underlying brain systems.


When you look at emotional intelligence competencies, the learned skill sets that might make you persuasive in a business setting or might make you strong at handling clients or customers, the gender differences disappear among the top 10 percent of performers. Men do about as well as women, and women do about as well as men. The one difference is that men seem to do better at managing stressing emotions, but that seems to even out among people who are at the peak of their game.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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