Can emotions be intelligent?

In recent years a growing a group of psychologist from Yale Robert Sternberg and Peter Salovey have come to similar conclusions, agreeing with Gardner that the old concepts of IQ revolved around a narrow band of linguistic and math skills, and that doing well on IQ tests was most directly a predictor of success in the classroom or as a professor but less and less so as life’s paths diverged from academe. These psychologists – Sternberg and Salovey among them, have taken a wider view of intelligence, trying to reinvent it in terms of what it takes to lead life successfully. And that line of enquiry leads back to an appreciation of just how crucial “personal” or emotional intelligence is.

Salovey subsumes Gardner’s personal intelligences in his basic definition of emotional intelligence, expanding these abilities into five main domains:

  1. Knowing one’s emotions. Self-awareness, recognizing a feeling as it happens, is the keystone of emotional intelligence. The ability to monitor feelings from moment to moment is crucial to psychological insight and self-understanding. An inability to notice out true feelings leaves us at their mercy. People with greater certainty about their feelings are better pilots of their lives, having a surer sense of how they really feel about personal decisions from whom to marry to what job to take.
  2. Managing emotions. Handling feelings so they are appropriate is an ability that builds on self-awareness. People who are poor in this ability are constantly battling feelings and distress, while those who excel in it can bounce back far more quickly from life’s setbacks and upsets.
  3. Motivating oneself. Marshaling emotions in the service of a goal is essential for paying attention, for self-motivation and mastery, and for creativity. Emotional self-control, delaying gratification and stifling impulsiveness, underlies accomplishments of every shot. And being able to get into the “flow” state enables outstanding performance of all kinds. People who have this skill tend to be more highly productive and effective in whatever they undertake.
  4. Recognizing emotions in others. Empathy, another ability that builds on emotional self-awareness, is the fundamental “people skill.” People who are empathic are more attuned to the subtle social signals that indicate what others need or want. This makes them better at calling such as the caring professions, teaching, sales, and management.
  5. Handling relationships. The art of relationships is, in large part, skill in managing emotions in others. These are the abilities that undergird popularity, leadership, and interpersonal effectiveness. People who excel in these skills do well at anything that relies on interacting smoothly with others; they are social stars.

Of course, people differ in their abilities in each of these domains; some of us may be quite adept at handling, say, our own anxiety, but relatively inept at soothing someone else’s upsets. The underlying basis for our level of ability is, no doubt, neural, but as we will see, the brain is remarkably plastic, constantly learning. Lapses in emotional skills can be remedied: to a great extent of these domains represents a body of habit and response that, with the right effort, can be improved on.  

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