What’s more important in determining life success—book smarts or street smarts? This question gets at the heart of an important debate contrasting the relative importance of cognitive intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ).
Proponents of so-called “book smarts” might suggest that IQ plays the most critical role in determining how well people fare in life. Those who advocate for the importance of what might be called “street smarts” would instead suggest that EQ is even more important. So which is it?
Understanding the IQ vs. EQ Debate
In his book Emotional Intelligence, author and psychologist Daniel Goleman suggested that EQ (or emotional intelligence quotient) might actually be more important than IQ.1 Why? Some psychologists believe that standard measures of intelligence (i.e. IQ scores) are too narrow and do not encompass the full range of human intelligence.
The psychologist Howard Gardner, for example, has suggested that intelligence is not simply a single general ability.2 Instead, he suggests that there are actually multiple intelligences and that people may have strengths in a number of these areas.
Instead of focusing on a single, general intelligence, usually referred to as the g factor, some experts believe that the ability to understand and express emotions can play an equal, if not more important, role in how people fare in life.2
The Difference Between IQ and EQ
How are IQ and EQ measured and tested? Intelligence quotient, or IQ, is a number derived from a standardized intelligence test. On the original IQ tests, scores were calculated by dividing the individual’s mental age by their chronological age and then multiplying that number by 100.
So, a child with a mental age of 15 and a chronological age of 10 would have an IQ of 150. Today, scores on most IQ tests are calculated by comparing the test taker’s score to the average scores of other people in the same age group. IQ represents abilities such as:
- Visual and spatial processing
- Knowledge of the world
- Fluid reasoning
- Working memory and short-term memory
- Quantitative reasoning
Emotional intelligence refers to a person’s ability to perceive, control, evaluate, and express emotions. Researchers such as John Mayer and Peter Salovey, as well as writers like Daniel Goleman, have helped shine a light on emotional intelligence, making it a hot topic in areas ranging from business management to education.2 EQ is centered on abilities such as:
- Identifying emotions
- Evaluating how others feel
- Controlling one’s own emotions
- Perceiving how others feel
- Using emotions to facilitate social communication
- Relating to others
Since the 1990s, emotional intelligence has gone from a semi-obscure concept found in academic journals to a popularly recognized term. Now you can buy toys that claim to help boost emotional intelligence or enroll kids in social and emotional learning (SEL) programs designed to teach emotional intelligence skills. In some schools in the United States, social and emotional learning is even a curriculum requirement.
Which Is More Important?
At one point in time, IQ was viewed as the primary determinant of success. People with high IQs were assumed to be destined for a life of accomplishment and achievement, and researchers debated whether intelligence was the product of genes or the environment (the nature versus nurture debate).
However, some critics began to realize that high intelligence was no guarantee for success in life. It was also perhaps too narrow a concept to fully encompass the wide range of human abilities and knowledge.
IQ is still recognized as an important element of success, particularly when it comes to academic achievement. People with high IQs typically to do well in school, often earn more money, and tend to be healthier in general.3
But today experts recognize that IQ is not the only determinant of life success. Instead, it is part of a complex array of influences—one that includes emotional intelligence. Many companies now mandate emotional intelligence training and use EQ tests as part of the hiring process.
Research has found that individuals with strong leadership potential also tend to be more emotionally intelligent, suggesting that a high EQ is an important quality for business leaders and managers.4
For example, one insurance company discovered that EQ could play a vital role in sales success. Sales agents who ranked lower on emotional intelligence abilities such as empathy, initiative, and self-confidence were found to sell policies with an average premium of $54,000. Agents who ranked highly on measures of EQ sold policies worth an average of $114,000.
Emotional abilities can also influence the choices that consumers make when confronted with buying decisions. Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman found that people would rather deal with a person that they trust and like rather than someone they do not, even if that means paying more for an inferior product.5
Can Emotional Intelligence Be Learned?
If emotional intelligence is so important, can it be taught or strengthened? According to one meta-analysis that looked at the results of social and emotional learning programs, the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes.
The study found that approximately 50% of kids enrolled in SEL programs had better achievement scores and almost 40% showed improved grade-point-averages. These programs were also linked to lower suspension rates, increased school attendance, and reduced disciplinary problems.
Strategies for teaching emotional intelligence include character education, modeling positive behaviors, encouraging people to think about how others are feeling, and finding ways to be more empathetic toward others.
Goleman D. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Random House; 2012.
Drigas AS, Papoutsi C. A new layered model on emotional intelligence. Behav Sci (Basel). 2018;8(5). doi:10.3390/bs8050045
Richardson K, Norgate SH. Does IQ really predict job performance?. Appl Dev Sci. 2015;19(3):153-169. doi:10.1080/10888691.2014.983635
Srivastava K. Emotional intelligence and organizational effectiveness. Ind Psychiatry J. 2013;22(2):97-9. doi:10.4103/0972-6748.132912
Rupande G. The impact of emotional intelligence on student learning. IJMSR. 2015;3(9):133-136.
Goleman D. Working With Emotional Intelligence. Random House; 2011.