What exactly is the science of emotional intelligence? Part I

In my last blog I discussed a recent podcast produced by the EI Consortium featuring Professor Neal Ashkanasy.  The podcast is worth hearing.  In the blog I note that Ashkanasy finishes with an appeal to follow the science.  To me that raises the question what exactly is the science of emotional intelligence?

As I said in the blog I studied Natural Sciences in my first two years at Cambridge (1964-66) and I requote the opening lines of the my first lecture:

“Welcome to Cambridge.  At the other place they produce Prime Ministers, here we produce Nobel Prize winners.  Cambridge is the citadel of Empiricism & Scepticism.  Here Experiment & Observation trump Innate Ideas & Traditions.  Astrology is a quack science, Freud was a quack, Jung was an even bigger one.  If you want to understand true science applied to psychology read Miller’s paper The Magical Number 7 ± 2.”

Besides empiricism and scepticism, the other guiding light on the definition of science was Karl Popper, who summed up the essence of “the” scientific method by saying real scientists (as opposed to, say, psychoanalysts) were distinguished by the fact that they tried to refute rather than confirm their theories.

Little did I know then that a book published in 1962 was going to change this philosophy.  In its first year only 919 were sold.  Fifty years later sales to date were 1.4 million copies.  When I started my MBA at the London Business School in 1971 the book was #1 on the reading list.  The book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn changed everything.

Prior to Kuhn Science was seen as an activity where researchers, theorists and experimenters had engaged in a long march, if not towards “truth”, then at least towards greater and greater understanding of the natural world.

Kuhn’s version of how science develops differed dramatically.  Kuhn saw discontinuities – a set of alternating “normal” and “revolutionary” phases in which communities of specialists in particular fields are plunged into periods of turmoil, uncertainty and angst. These revolutionary phases – for example the transition from Newtonian mechanics to quantum physics – correspond to great conceptual breakthroughs and lay the basis for a succeeding phase of business as usual.  The development in any scientific field happens via a series of phases. The first he christened “normal science” – business as usual, if you like. In this phase, a community of researchers who share a common intellectual framework – called a paradigm or a “disciplinary matrix” – engage in solving puzzles thrown up by discrepancies (anomalies) between what the paradigm predicts and what is revealed by observation or experiment. Most of the time, the anomalies are resolved either by incremental changes to the paradigm or by uncovering observational or experimental error. Normal science does not aim at novelty but at clearing up the status quo. It tends to discover what it expects to discover.

The trouble is that over longer periods unresolved anomalies accumulate and eventually get to the point where some scientists begin to question the paradigm itself. At this point, the discipline enters a period of crisis characterised by, in Kuhn’s words, “a proliferation of compelling articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals”. In the end, the crisis is resolved by a revolutionary change in world-view in which the now-deficient paradigm is replaced by a newer one. This is the paradigm shift of modern parlance and after it has happened the scientific field returns to normal science, based on the new framework. And so it goes on.

Ashkanasy in his podcast seems to believe the science of emotional intelligence is settled.  The EQ model to use is Salovey-Mayer, emotions are defined by Paul Ekman, micro-expressions are real, and the Department of Homeland Security/Transport Security Administration in the USA  has successively invested US$900 million in the SPOT initiatives to train their operatives to identify persons who may pose a risk to aviation security.

I think the opposite.  The science of emotional intelligence is undergoing a paradigm shift.  In particular Lisa Feldman Barrett is proposing a different view.  I wrote these two blogs after I read her book.

Book Review: ‘How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain’

Book Review: ‘How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain’ Part II

In particular she maintains the $900 million funding of the SPOT program was completely wasted.  She does seem to have the support of the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

As a writer and blogger on emotional intelligence I have already raised doubts on a number of popular beliefs.  For example, I believe Amygdala Hijacks are rubbish.  I don’t believe separate parts of the brain are the source of emotional footprints.  I have attended a lecture by Paul Ekman and paid for and did his course on micro-expressions.  Yet for the life of me I totally failed to read facial emotions.  At the 2017 Emotional Intelligence Congress in Oporto all the 300 papers and presentations except one used the Salovey-Meyer model of emotional intelligence.  My paper did not; I use Goleman’s model which I think is more practical and useful.  As a result, I consider myself to be an outlier crying in the wilderness.  Most of all I consider temperament, your genetic emotional bias, more than emotions to be the secret to lifting your emotional intelligence.

On the other hand, there is one area where Ashkanasy and I do agree.  We both believe our wives have much more emotional intelligence than their husbands.

I have more to say but this blog is long enough.  More in the next blog where I quote the Thin White Duke.

This blog was first posted on LinkedIn on 22 February 2023



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