In case you haven’t been keeping tabs on the school yard fights about emotional intelligence, you can get a quick taste by checking out the Newsweek NurtureShock Blog interview last fall (and its related predecessors and successors) of Daniel Goleman, who became the once and forever media champion of EI with the publication in 1995 of his book Emotional Intelligence; Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, followed by more articles, books and interviews than you can count.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of 2009’s NurtureShock, which selectively undercuts the validity of various social-improvement efforts while trumpeting their own views, took on Goleman on the topic of "is ’emotional intelligence’ real" (note the internal quotes), asking him questions that are "probing" by their lights and "gotcha" by others’.  Goleman sat still for a few answers, which the NurtureShock people later summarized as "no real data."

The issues at hand are longstanding ones.  Goleman published his book at the time that the then Yale researchers John Mayer and Peter Salovey were just formulating some of their theories about emotional intelligence.  I have it from them directly that Goleman was one of the few in the audience listening to their updates on the state of the research and they still rue his jump on publishing the material.  He was a NYTimes journalist at the time and could tell from the response he was getting that people were interested in emotional intelligence, and that it struck them as true. His article on emotional intelligence in the Harvard Business Review had the distinction of being the most reprinted article of any that had been published to date.

But Goleman did stretch in trying to connect the dots between the nascent research and the exciting implications he could imagine for business.  Salovey, now Dean at Yale, has repeated in many forums what Bronson and Merryman cite, that Goleman went further than the research did. There is less animosity and divergence, though, than that statement might suggest.  Certainly Salovey and  Mayer are convinced of the existence of emotional intelligence and its importance and have conducted and collected some fascinating results about it.  They themselves devised the definitive "abilities-based" assessment for EI that I and many others use.  Goleman was just the sometimes overenthusiastic messenger, which he tries to ratchet down in the latest editions of his book.

Some argue that neuroscience is absorbing and outdating aspects of psychology.  "Executive function," occurring in the prefrontal cortex, is evidenced in the brain’s maturation and is a significant driver of higher functions, such as organizing complicated work and relating to others in complicated social circumstances.  The NurtureShock folks are laying bets on that function outdating the concept of emotional intelligence at least to some extent.

Goleman did politely preface his comments in the interview with Bronson and Merryman by saying that he had heard NurtureShock was good, although he pointedly said he hadn’t had time yet to read it.  And he thanked Bronson and Merryman for the refreshing chance "to take part in intelligent and civil discourse."  In turn, they thanked Goleman for being "generous" with his time and "welcomed" him back for further discussion, before pointing out the questions he didn’t answer.

But, as various commentators implied, evidence abounded in the interchange that neither high executive functioning nor high emotional intelligence guarantees a cogent or even respectful approach to this particular controversy.

Thankfully the research goes on.

Stay tuned.