by J.M. Stewart

Which Gray Matter Matters Most?

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Think of the smartest person you know. Now ask yourself: Is that person successful? Is that person happy? Stop right there. The two are not necessarily the same thing. A robust IQ may look good on paper, but there is a new way of measuring abilities called the Emotional Quotient (EQ)—or, more specifically, Emotional Intelligence (EI)—which is proving to be a more accurate predictor of your potential for a happy and successful life. Emotional intelligence is best defined as a set of life skills. It’s the ability to handle challenging situations by managing your own emotions, and the emotions of those around you.

These skills can improve not only your personal life, but your work environment as well. On a corporate level, companies that have implemented emotional intelligence training have noticed an increase in production and profits. Schools that have incorporated emotional intelligence into their curricula have reported improvement in grades and test scores. A person with high emotional intelligence and an average IQ has a greater chance of flourishing—both personally and professionally—than a person who possesses a high IQ with low emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is a relatively new term. But it’s been around for as long as humankind has existed. In the 19th century, we called it “horse sense” and in the 20th century, “street smarts.” It was how we described individuals able to manage themselves in new or stressful situations, who demonstrated the kind of level-headedness that led to successful decision-making. It was all about understanding your own emotions as well as someone else’s, and governing yourself accordingly.

In the 1980s and 1990s, researchers began to look at emotional intelligence with a more scientific eye. Right away, there were some distinguishing characteristics. For instance, with IQ, there is a standardized test that measures your cognitive abilities. You either have a high IQ, or you don’t, and it’s going to be about the same at age 15 and age 50. Emotional intelligence, on the other hand, is a part of your reasoning capabilities, and these can be learned; you don’t necessarily have to have been born with a high EQ. Here’s another eye-opening tidbit. When your parents told you to stop watching TV and read a book—or go outside and play—to keep your brain from turning to mush, they actually were right. With use, the brain is forming and expanding. This is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity describes the brain’s ability to change by forming new connective tissue. A single cell can grow 15,000 new connections. The area of the brain that deals with our emotions, the amygdala, expands when our EQ improves, by forming new axons (connections). The amygdala is the brain’s center for emotional memory, emotional reactivity, and helps us be resilient when dealing with emotional distress. Emotional intelligence requires effective communication between the emotional and the rational centers of the brain. So, the higher our EQ becomes, the more connective tissue is formed, giving us an improved brain. 

THERE’S A TEST FOR THAT Is there an emotional intelligence test? Yes, but only a handful have been proofed with extensive research and accepted by the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations (CREIO). Reuven Bar-On, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and a leading pioneer in the field of emotional intelligence, developed the EQ-I (Emotional Quotient Inventory) test after 18 years of research. The test was published in 1997 and was the first accepted measurement of emotional intelligence. It has been distributed worldwide in 30 different languages, and covers five different scales of EQ:

  • Intrapersonal (self-awareness and self-expression)
  • Interpersonal (social awareness and interpersonal-relationship)
  • Stress Management (emotional management and regulation)
  • Adaptability (change management)
  • General Mood (self-motivation)

Another highly accepted test is the Mayer-Salovey- Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT 2.0). This test went through a grueling evaluation process, with detractors expressing concern about the viability of standardizing what is a right or wrong response when dealing with emotions. After much point and counterpoint, the MSCEIT emerged as another highly valued and widely employed test. It measures the four branches of EI based on the John C. Mayer and Peter Salovey model:

  • Perceiving emotions
  • Using emotions to facilitate thought
  • Understanding emotions
  • Managing emotions

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EQ IN THE WORKPLACE Most EQ tests take anywhere from 30-45 minutes to complete. Because a higher EQ has been shown to not only increase your mental health by lowering stress (which can lead to anxiety, depression and physical problems), but also your relationships and performance in a complex work environment—the place you are most likely to encounter an EQ test is in the workplace, or at least when applying for a job. Indeed, many companies have now incorporated emotional intelligence training into their practices, with spectacular results. Typically, they report anywhere from 55% to 70% improvement in both individual and corporate production. Emotional intelligence has also become a key factor in differentiating a mediocre business leader or manager from a highly effective one. The ability to understand the moods and behavior of employees—coupled with the management of the leader’s own emotions when dealing with stressful situations—leads to better interactions with co-workers.

This results in a more approachable team leader who is more readily available, who can maintain emotional flexibility to positively direct the energies of others, and who creates a more conducive work environment. This translates into greater trust and respect for the leader. Conversely, the lack of emotional intelligence may help explain why really smart people do really dumb things that end up ruining their careers. In his paper Bringing Emotional Intelligence to the Workplace, Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., writes that unlike “the brilliant executive who does everything well except get along with other people, or the technically gifted manager who can’t handle stress and whose career falters,” leaders with good emotional intelligence tend to advance more successfully in their field and remain happier throughout the process. “The super salesperson whose ability to sense what is most important to the clients and to develop a trusting relationship with them, or the service employee who is excellent in dealing with irate customers by helping to calm, and diffuse the situation,” are two examples of how emotional intelligence is used in the work environment with positive results.

IQ may get you in the door, but EQ will help you manage the stress and emotions of the job. Indeed, what research is available on the subject suggests that the higher one advances in an organization, the more important EQ becomes—with EQ skills accounting for 90 percent of what separates good leaders from average ones. For the record, Goleman is probably the most famous of the emotional intelligence experts. He has published numerous books and papers on EI. The most popular book, Emotional Intelligence, was written in 1995 and sold over 5,000,000 copies worldwide in 40 different languages. His second book, Working with Emotional Intelligence, deals with EI in the business world. 

GIRLS RULE? In terms of basic skills for leading a happy and successful life, almost every test for EQ finds that women have an edge over men. However, Goleman warns, “It’s not that simple.” Keep in mind that these tests have a basic four-part scale: self-awareness, managing emotions, empathy, and social skills. In response to a blog posted in 2011, “Are women more emotionally intelligent than men?”, Goleman answered, “Yes, and yes and no.” Women, on average, are better at some forms of empathy, while men are better at managing distressing emotions. Yet, as Goleman points out, “There are two very different and distinct Bell Curves that lead to an overlap where it can switch.” He explains further, “There are three different kinds of empathy: cognitive empathy (being able to know how another person sees things); emotional empathy (feeling what the other person feels); and empathic concern or sympathy (being ready to help someone in need).” Goleman maintains that women tend to be better at emotional empathy, which fosters rapport and chemistry with others. For example, if another person is upset, a woman can stay with the feelings of distress for a longer period of time than a man.

A man will sense the feeling for a moment, then tune out the emotions and switch to an area of his brain that will try to solve the problem at hand. The part of the brain that registers empathy is called the insula. Neuroscientists tell us that, when we empathize with someone, our brain mimics what that person is feeling, and the insula reads that pattern and tells us what that feeling is. So, when a man’s brain clicks into tune-out mode, he’s no longer using the insula; he’s switched to another part of the brain. This helps him to stay calm while everyone else is in high emotional distress, enabling him to focus on finding a solution. Conversely, a woman’s tendency to stay in-tune with an emotionally upsetting situation helps her to nurture and support others. “So, one is not better than the other, just different,” Goleman concludes. Tune in, tune out—it’s a brain difference. Since women do tend to score higher than men on the empathy card, they have the edge when it comes to the work environment. However, as psychologist Ruth Malloy of the Haygroup Boston (which studies business leaders) says, “When it comes to top leaders in business, gender differences in emotional intelligence level out.” The men are as good as the women and the women are as good as the men.”

Editor‘s Note: J.M. Stewart’s other contribution to this issue—her interview with Sandra Oh—actually started with a discussion with the actress about the subject of EQ. Oh is not a big fan of media, but is passionate on this particular subject. You can read an extended version of EQ vs. IQ—including a look at how educators view the subject—at