The Situationist

Can Emotional Intelligence be Taught?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 9, 2007

Happiness

We have examined emotions on multiple occasions, including in “The Situation of Happiness” and, most recently, in Jon Hanson and Michael McCann’s “Attributing Terror–From the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror.” We now excerpt an article by the BBC’s Denise Winterman on whether children can be taught “emotional intelligence,” which can be defined as the ability to perceive, assess, and manage one’s emotions and those of others.

* * *

Do you offer complete strangers a shoulder to cry on when England fail to fulfil their potential in yet another World Cup? Or did you shed a few tears of your own when Take That got back together – after crying a river when they split up?

There’s a term for people like you – and it’s one you can repeat in front of your mother. In fact, she might even be proud to know you’re what psychologists call “emotionally intelligent”.

* * *

Happy Childhood. . . [T]he term emotional intelligence (EI) is a relatively new one. Despite its recent arrival it has become embedded in our vernacular and linked to almost every area of life. From contentment in your home life to success in the workplace, it always seems irrevocably wrapped up in your ability to get in touch with your feeling – and others.

The government even wants EI taught in all classrooms. A pilot scheme in primary schools found it improved behaviour and academic performance. This week ministers announced they now wanted to extend such lessons to secondary schools.

So when did EI become so important and why? The term – and the theory behind it – was popularised by psychologist Daniel Goleman. His book of the same name became a bestseller in 1995 and sold millions of copies worldwide.

From there a whole industry rapidly grew. If you work you might have been on a training course to help you develop your EI, run by the one of a multitude of EI institutes, companies and organisations.

* * *

“It is a great commercial opportunity for some,” says Professor Goleman. “Money can be made through marketing new tests and training courses for industry. Some of the marketing efforts have been pretty aggressive.”

He argues there is a fundamental difficulty in testing EI and it’s often impossible to specify objectively what is the most emotionally intelligent behaviour in a given situation.

“Tests for EI are of limited value in that the test score tends to reflect a subjective judgment as to what are the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers – whether the judgement comes from the developer, outside experts or group consensus.

“Such judgments are likely to be dependent on social and cultural influences. If the tests had been invented 50 years ago, they would probably have rewarded a ‘stiff upper lip’ and constrained emotional expression, in contrast to contemporary tests.”Happy Kid

The current emergence of EI into education is a direct result of the introduction National Curriculum in 1988, says Professor Susan Hallam, author of the Institute of Education (IoE) study looking at the teaching of EI in primary schools.

“Prior to the National Curriculum schools had a duty to develop the whole child, that flew out of the window when it was introduced,” she says.

The IoE’s study showed positive results from the introduction of lessons in EI – from the classroom to the playground – but Professor Hallam says the term in general is “a bit of a red herring”.

* * *

“Emotional intelligence and understanding your own emotions does not mean you use them in a positive way. It’s the same in schools as it is in society.

“It’s not only about being aware of the way you, and others, feel – there’s a moral element. Bullies are often very emotionally intelligent, they just don’t use it in a positive way.”

Including a moral framework into EI lessons is a key part of their success, she says.

Ultimately, like any theory, EI will always be open to debate. But maybe its rapid rise in the public consciousness comes down to something rather simple – people like to put labels on things.

“We love doing it because it validates something and makes it seem more real,” says philosopher Julian Baggini.

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