On emotional intelligence: a response to Peter Salovey

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A response to Peter Salovey’s convocation address at Hopkins School, in New Haven, Connecticut.

Salovey is one of the foundational thinkers behind the concept of emotional intelligence; he is also the new president of Yale University. I originally wrote this as a response to a student who asked me to comment on his address.

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The most interesting and valuable concept in Peter Salovey’s address was that of optimizing one’s choices by understanding, and exploiting, one’s own inborn temperament — for example, the infant drawn toward unfamiliar things, versus the infant who avoids them. (He didn’t use the technical term, but he was describing varying degrees of risk aversion, a well-known psychological measurement.)

In other words, an “emotionally intelligent” person understands his or her own temperament, and takes it into account when making significant life choices. This is very pluralistic; there’s room for different temperaments and correspondingly different choices.

However, this raises several concerns. First of all, it wasn’t clear to me that we have the information we need, as teenagers or adults, to separate temperament from circumstantial factors like environment and mood. Perhaps there’s no need for such a distinction… but, to turn to an obvious example, what does a depressed person do? Should they be making life choices on the basis of a self-assessment that suggests a depressed “temperament”?

Moreover, I am not persuaded that “emotional intelligence” should be used as a blanket term for introspection, empathy, gregariousness, and rhetorical competence. Sure, one could say, as Salovey did about prisoners, that some people have some kinds of emotional intelligence but not others. But doesn’t this end up being a disguised moral judgment – i.e., that prisoners aren’t introspective, and should be? According to whom — Salovey? He assumes that an emotionally intelligent person would not make judgments that end in prison time. Right away, I think this excludes “prisoners of conscience” like Martin Luther King, Jr., who was imprisoned for protesting segregation. But it also raises another question about optimal outcomes. What if emotionally intelligent people don’t end up in jail because they’re better at being criminals? Would an “emotional intelligence” course in prison assume that the end result of such work would be respect for the law? That strikes me as very dubious. I’m reminded of the scene in The Shawshank Redemption where one of the prisoners says that Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Count of Monte Cristo, about a prisoner who escapes jail and commits fraud and violence, should be filed under “Education.”

There are specific types of people, such as people with Asperger’s Syndrome, who can probably benefit greatly from Salovey’s conversion of touchy-feely aptitudes like “empathy” into quantifiable skillsets. But as an entire society, we already have well-developed methods of studying literature, teaching rhetoric, practicing introspection, communicating feelings, and analyzing social interactions.

Over 100 years ago, philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche were already proposing pluralistic theories of temperament. Nietzsche was building on the work of others, including the essayist Michel de Montaigne, and has been followed by others, including contemporary philosopher Alexander Nehamas. Like many people who come to the humanities in a roundabout manner, Salovey seems to feel he has discovered everything he has re-branded. Unfortunately, what is good here is not new, and what is new, is not good.

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