Emotional Intelligence: Why the “80% of Success” Is BS

emotional intelligece book cover

“Emotional Intelligence” (1995) explores what Emotional Intelligence (EI) is and why it matters more than IQ.
In this book, Goleman famously said that emotional intelligence is the best predictor of life success -even more important than IQ and power intelligence-.
The assertion that “EI is a better predictor of life success” than IQ has been contested.

Bullet Summary 

  • Emotional Intelligence is a (much) bigger predictor of success than IQ
  • EI is composed of self-awareness; emotional management; self-motivation; empathy; managing other’s emotions
  • Emotional Intelligence skills can be taught and improved

Emotional Intelligence Summary

About The Author: Daniel Goleman is not a psychologist himself, but a journalist and a best-selling author.
He is most famous for the concept of Emotional Intelligence, which is rather contentious among psychologists but which nonetheless brought fame to Goleman (who later also started an “emotional intelligence certification”).
Daniel Goleman also wrote “Social Intelligence” and “Primal Leadership“.

History of EQ: Daniel Goleman says that before 1990 the prominence of IQ as the major determinant of success was out of the question.
But things were just beginning to shift.
“Emotional Intelligence” was a term coined as an umbrella catch-all for an array of different findings that were slowly putting IQ more in perspective.

#1: What Are Emotions For?

Daniel Goleman says feelings govern our behavior as much, and often more so, than thoughts.

Thoughts are measured by IQ, while feelings and emotions are the domain of Emotional Intelligence.

Since feelings and emotions matter in our decision making often more than IQ, it concedes that Emotional Intelligence matters more than IQ.

#2: Anatomy of an Emotional Hijacking

Daniel Goleman focuses here on the anatomy of the brain.

The gist is that the cortex is the area of the brain governing rational thoughts while the limbic system governs emotions.

#3: When Smart is Dumb

Daniel Goleman cites a number of studies proving Emotional Intelligence is a more significant predictor than IQ in determining “success” in life.

Namely, he mentions and lends credibility to a study concluding that IQ account only for 10% to 20% of “success”, and implies that EQ accounts for the rest (80%).

My Note:
There has been discussion and criticism on those conclusions (superficial studies , EQ VS IQ?, EQ as a predictor) , but I don’t doubt it for a second.
IF EQ includes understanding other people’s emotions, using emotions in service of your goal and delaying gratification… Well those pretty much are the definition of success.

Importantly, the author also stresses that IQ and EQ are NOT antithetic.
As a matter of fact, high IQ and low EI and vice versa are quite rare. Indeed there is a correlation between IQ and some aspects of IE.

Goleman takes the 5 domains of Emotional Intelligence first outlined by Peter Salovey and expands on them.
The general idea is that, same for IQ, people have different abilities in each domain.
The basis is neural, but since the brain is plastic, these abilities can be changed and improved upon.

The next 5 chapters will cover the 5 Emotional Domains.

Emotional Domain 1: Knowing one’s emotions

Knowing one’s emotions refers to self-awareness. being conscious of what we’re feeling and recognizing which feeling we are experiencing.

Daniel Goleman says it’s more important knowing yourself and your strengths instead of your IQ test and its results (or whatever other test you took).

Emotional Domain 2: Managing Emotions

You can manage your feelings by changing what you focus your attention on.

I  especially liked the topics of optimism and hope.
They are highly beneficial and they can both be learned: underpinning both is self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief that one has mastery over life’s events and can meet challenges as they come.

Developing a competency of any kind also strengthens the sense of self-efficacy.

Flow & Emotional Emotional Intelligence
Goleman says that Flow could be thought in many ways as the peak of emotional intelligence.
One way to enter flow is to focus greatly on the task at hand.
Flow happens when a task is a bit more challenging than usual but within reach.

Goleman cites the same study in Daniel Pink’s Drive, in which painters who were after money or afraid of critics weren’t able to deliver as original work as their counterparts who freely expressed themselves.

For more on Flow check:

Emotional Domain 3: Motivating Oneself

Motivating oneself refers to the ability to use emotions in the service of a goal.
Goleman highlights the importance of emotional traits such as enthusiasm and persistence -also check Grit by Angela Duckworth-.

Emotional Domain 4: Recognizing Other’s Emotions

This is basically empathy and social awareness.

Daniel Goldman also talks about emotional intelligence in relation to gender.
Women, on average, are more empathetic than men. Goleman also suggests that empathy helps with romantic life.

Emotional Domain 5: Handling relationships

This is the ability to manage emotions in others.

EQ is key in relationships because people who are poor at perceiving and sending emotions are poor in their relationships.

#9: Intimate Enemies

Daniel Goleman cites different studies to prove that women can express their emotions better than men.

Men also tend to have a much rosier view of their relationship compared to women.
However, the differences disappeared among top performers executive, meaning that top women are similar to top men (link to the study).

My Note: Take a look at my articles on dating and relationships:

#10: Managing With Heart

Goleman says that how well groups perform a task is determined in good part by their collective IQ.

But the key to a high group IQ is Emotional Intelligence: it’s Emotional Intelligence indeed that fosters an environment of social harmony.

Research among engineers at Bell’s Labs showed how what really made the difference for star performers was in the informal network they were able to tap into. Informal networks are formed mostly on the basis of EQ.

Also many studies proved the top performers were people who started a task and finished it.
People low in Emotional Intelligence instead started many tasks at the same time and ended up leaving many of them unfinished.

#11: Mind and Medicine

Goleman discusses many pieces of research showing there’s a strong relationship between a positive and optimistic mood and good health.

Especially insidious to bad health are strong emotions like anger.

People high in hostility and prone to anger outbursts are 7 times more likely to die by age 50.
That is a higher predictor than smoking, high blood pressure or cholesterol.

#12: The Family Crucible

Sadly Goleman points out that emotional imbalances are often transmitted from emotionally unstable families to their children.
Parents who constantly burst out in anger and beat their children often bring their children to lose empathy and behave the same way.

#13: Trauma and Emotional Relearning

Traumas and emotionally tragic experience can become embedded in people’s brain and even smaller events can recall the event and trigger uncontrollable reactions.

However, our brain is malleable and we can re-learn new things and abandon old neurological connections (I invite you to read The Body Keeps The Score for more on it and for curing post-traumatic stress disorders)

#14: Temperament is Not Destiny

The main idea here is that we can all learn emotional intelligence. However, I didn’t find any enlightening advice.

#15: The Cost of Emotional Literacy

Daniel Goleman says that some people are paying very highly the cost not recognizing emotions.

Some, for example, are unable to differentiate between being scared and angry.
Some other people end up hungry in depressing situations and binge eat.

Another example is bullies.
Studies have shown how they can misread neutral acts as aggression and then are able to muster one way to react: lashing out.


There is much I need to say here:

1. EQ accounting for 80% of success is sensation-seeking nonsense

The notion that “EQ is 80% of success” has been severely criticized.
And for good reasons.

A few reasons why:

  1. There is no study to prove that
  2. At the time Goleman wrote there was no good way to measure EI
  3. There is still a debate raging on whether we can correctly measure EI
  4. How would you even measure “success” and how much “EI accounted for”? Close to impossible…

Just to be sure, Goleman himself says he’s appalled people misquote him by saying that “EQ accounts for 80% of success” (note: he removed that page).

And he again criticizes that concept in another article.

Goleman himself criticized that idea.

Yet, the reason why so many quote him as saying that, it’s because that’s exactly how it feels reading “Emotional Intelligence”.
It feels like a huge cheerleader for EI, which matters more than anything else.

Even in that second article in which he vehemently denies that EQ account for 80% of success, he ends by saying: “the slow march of research lags far behind the hype of EQ marketers”.
The feeling is that the “slow march” of research will eventually prove the point.

In truth, there is plenty of research showing the limited use of EQ as in “empathy” or disproving it outright.

Which leads me to the next point:

2. How about Machiavellian EQ? That surely helps!

With Goleman, “emotional intelligence” seems to be mostly about empathy, caring and understanding.

These are all positive emotions.

But the emotional intelligence that gets you promoted can as well be Machiavellian in nature.

In his overview of Machiavellian literature and research, Bereckzei also notes that Machiavellians score low on emotional intelligence tests because they’re poorly designed.
But remove the agreeableness bias, add personal incentives, and add the opportunity for manipulation, and Machiavellians perform better than average.

This is something that Adam Grant also notices. Goleman called Grant’s article “acerbic takedown”, but never addressed that crucial point.
Note: there was a link to Goleman’s article, but Goleman removed the page.

If you want to have a good career, read here instead:

3. Meta-analysis shows EQ predicts nothing -or can impede success- in non-people facing jobs

Research shows that in jobs where people don’t work with other people, emotional intelligence not only didn’t predict performance but negatively correlated with performance (Newman, 2010).

Again, this is something Adam Grant correctly points in the previous article.
But Goleman focuses his answer on what some random people commented on Grant’s post, plus with some more circumstantial evidence -plus accusing grant of being a ivory tower academic, which in my opinion was low-.

In my opinion, Ivory Tower is refusing to acknowledge how Machiavellianism can get you to the top as effectively as being an empathic manager can.
And that’s not what Grant is culpable of.

4. Execs have low EQ. CEOs have lowest EQ. How do you explain that?

Finally, there is Bradberry.
Bradberry markets emotional intelligence courses, and he’d have all the interest in showing that EI predicts job position.

Instead, these are his results:

emotioan intelligence stat plotting EQ results by job titles

So, how would you explain that?

Also read:

5. How About Hyper-Successful of IQ Geniuses & Emotional Idiots?

Finally, there are some extremely high IQ and very low EI.

And they still achieved huge success.
Think of Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg.
There is no mention of these personalities in “Emotional Intelligence”, and they don’t really seem to be such rare exceptions among the multi-billionaire.

As examples see these breakdown articles:

emotional intelligece book cover

Real-Life Applications

Don’t ruminate when you’re sad
When you’re sad, don’t ruminate, but distract yourself. Exercise, complete small tasks, or re-frame the situation.
Also read: Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman.

How you reduce anger
Emotional Intelligence says when you’re angry you should see the issue from the other person’s point of view. Or if there’s a problem, think about a positive and plausible reason behind rather than accusing “some idiot’s incompetence”. And do NOT vent. Contrary to popular belief venting only prolongs your feelings.


“Emotional Intelligence” is an important books with some major fallacies.

To begin with, let me tell you this: it not a “how to” book.
There are some tips in here, but you won’t come out with a list of exercises or things you can do.

But if you want to learn about Emotional Intelligence the topic, and how and why it’s important, then this book provides a broad overview of many studies on the subject.

In my opinion, “Emotional Intelligence” was a much-needed needed, but got carried away too far.
It is biased in the sense that it overstates the case for EI as linked to personal success, but it does not show:

  1. EI doesn’t matter so much in certain roles
  2. EI can be used for Machiavellian strategies, and then it can be even more effective

On the other hand, it’s great that Goleman got people talking about this important concept, because it does make for better lives and relationships -when used for good-.

Daniel Goleman indeed brought “Emotional Intelligence” to the general public, and for that I am grateful.
He might have taken it too far. But isn’t that often the case with trailblazers who need to undo the mistakes of the past and show us a new way?

Get Emotional Intelligence
get it on Amazon.

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