The Dark Side of Emotional IntelligenceBy Jason Marsh | June 9, 2011 | 16 comments
A new study suggests EI can be used for evil as well as good.
Anyone familiar with Daniel Goleman’s 1995 best-seller, Emotional Intelligence, is likely to believe emotional intelligence is a skill that serves the greater good.
That’s not always true, according to a forthcoming study, which suggests that people with high emotional intelligence—meaning that they have a strong ability to identify what they’re feeling and keep their emotions from getting the better of them—can use that skill for good or bad.
The study consisted of two separate experiments. In both experiments, participants first took a survey that measured how well they could manage their emotions to suit the needs of a given situation—a skill called “emotion regulation,” which is an important part of emotional intelligence. If a co-worker fails to deliver an important part of a project you’re working on together, explain the researchers, and you respond by strongly encouraging him to do better without blowing your top—that’s emotion regulation.
In the first experiment, the participants also completed a questionnaire that assessed how strongly they wanted to see themselves as a caring, moral person, which the researchers call their “moral identity.”
Then they played a game that pitted the common good against their own self-interest: They could take a limited number of points from a common lottery pool. The more points they took, the greater their odds of winning a lottery. But if all the points got depleted from the pool—which would happen if everyone took the highest number of points available to them—there would be no lottery at all.
The results, which will be published in the journal Psychological Science later this year, show that people with a strong moral identity were more considerate of others—and they were significantly more considerate if they were also good at regulating their emotions.
The second experiment involved a different set of participants, who took a questionnaire that determined how motivated they were to manipulate others for their own personal gain—a trait known as “Machiavellianism.” Then they reported how often they’d behaved badly toward co-workers, such as by embarrassing them publicly.
The researchers found that people who had stronger Machiavellian impulses were more likely to treat others poorly—and this was especially true if they were also skilled at regulating their emotions.
Taken together, the results suggest that simply having high emotional intelligence doesn’t mean people will act with kindness and compassion toward others. In fact, emotional intelligence might even promote bad behavior.
“Although Machievellians have low emotion regulation knowledge on average,” write the researchers, “Machievellians who know how to regulate emotions effectively are especially harmful.”
So why might emotion regulation give this boost to good and bad behavior alike?
“We think that the ability to regulate emotions just helps people accomplish their goals,” says Stéphane Côté, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of organizational behavior and psychology at the University of Toronto. “When people want to accomplish their goals, there are emotions that are helpful and those that could get in their way.”
For instance, says Côté, guilt or compassion could get in the way of a Machiavellian’s selfish goals; being able to control those emotions could help them act on their nasty desires, just as a moral person would want to temper his selfish impulses in order to help other people.
“It’s the same skill, but it can help people accomplish different goals,” he says.
Côté acknowledges that this research will probably surprise people who assume that emotional intelligence is synonymous with kind, helpful—or “pro-social”—behavior.
“If people’s assumption is that people with high social skills will be more pro-social,” he says, “that’s a faulty assumption.”
Still, he doesn’t think it’s misguided to try to promote positive behavior by teaching emotional intelligence, which is what many social-emotional learning programs try to do in schools.
“Emotional skills are part of the puzzle,” he says, “but they’re not all of the puzzle. These skills are very useful, but like any skill, they will be used pro-socially only if they’re combined with other types of education,” like in ethics.
About The Author
Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.