Is Thinking with Your Heart a Sign of Intelligence?

“People who think with their hearts may be preparing sophisticated information processing with their emotions.” So claims Prof. John Mayer of the University of New Hampshire, a pioneer in the field of Emotional Intelligence (EI). He was addressing an international conference on the subject held at the University toward the end of November.

The subject of Emotional Intelligence has become so popular, according to Prof. Aharon Ben-Ze’ev, that it perhaps has come close to losing its meaning. With this general assessment, Ben-Ze’ev, Dean of Research and co-head of the University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Emotions, introduced the center’s first international conference, held in conjunction with Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute toward the end of November.

The idea of the conference, as Prof. Moshe Zeidner, the center’s other co-head, stated was to separate fact from hearsay on this loosely defined, less than decade-old concept that the popular press reports is replacing IQ. Toward this end, some of the world’s foremost scholars in the area of human emotions convened on the Mt Carmel campus.

Mayer, a psychologist who has developed key measures in the area, said it made him nervous to speak of managing emotions, which he sees as an “involved signal system” conveying essential information about relationships. EI, which he believes is independent of general intelligence, but “related to it like a cousin,” develops with age. General intelligence, however, has overlooked the domain of EI.

According to Klaus Scherer of the University of Geneva, emotions are “evolutionary intelligence—they replace stimulus-response situations.” In this context, EI “is used best as an adaptive function,” deciding which aspects to adapt and which not in order to regulate one’s own emotions and help one to assess the feelings of others. It can’t be divorced from culture, Scherer believes, and is an indicator of how much emotion is needed to survive in society.

The psychologist who introduced the concept of “emotional intelligence” in 1990, Prof. Peter Salovey of Yale University, finds the whole view of intelligence too narrow and analytical. He pointed to the fact that Charles Darwin, in a little known book, was one of the first proponents of the idea of interpersonal intelligence and people having abilities beyond the analytical.

Salovey’s own research tries to assess whether people have emotions-related skills. Laboratory tests have found that a positive mood helps a person reason inductively; on the other hand, a negative mood aided deductive reasoning, the kind of thinking needed on the law boards. EI, he ventures, may predict one’s ability to outperform on, say, verbal skills, since the ability to regulate emotions is involved in the testing situation. Perhaps for this reason, mental health professionals seem to perform higher than do others on EI examinations. In an organizational setting, he said, emotionally intelligent employees give better customer service although their bosses do not rate them so highly.

The Yale professor complained that the public’s understanding of EI was distorted because of the wild claims being made in its name by the popular press. This was due in part to a best-selling book on the subject that, he charged, gave a good general background to the subject but that went on to promise more than could be delivered.

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