Issue Two Online Extra: IQ vs. EQ. In the digital age is Emotional Intelligence more important than a high IQ? By Dr Maria Leitner

This article is part of the Online Extra section of Issue Two which you can read here.

Please note: This article was originally published on the original version of The New Idealist online in August 2013 before being added to this newly created site in July 2015.

Would you rather be intelligent or have ‘emotional intelligence’? Would you rather be virtuous or happy? Step up for a slice of nostalgia anyone who has tried to answer an Oxbridge philosophy entrance paper. And, it is likely to be pure nostalgia – how many of us actually make our daily crust solving problems complex enough to require deep thought? Maybe that answers the question? But did we ever spend that much time cogitating? For that matter, does the average run of daily social interaction, however successful, justify the rather grand term ‘Emotional Intelligence’? Weighing-up the salient characteristics of a species which is, after all, defined as an ‘intelligent social species’ is surprisingly problematic. Yet that is really what the labels ‘IQ’ and ‘EQ’ are all about.

Unsurprisingly, neither concept has ever been defined to the complete satisfaction of all parties. Proponents of EQ argue that the concept of a unitary ‘g’ (underpinning the majority of IQ tests) is undermined by the apparent diversity of cognitive abilities. Proponents of IQ argue that the intelligence in ‘Emotional Intelligence’ is simply redundant (what does the now overly used ‘intelligence’ suffix add to common terms such as moral conscience, bodily awareness or emotional sensitivity?).

As concepts go, IQ has a longer history and may have the edge on EQ in respect of coherence, but in practice both tend to be defined, for the sake of argument, by psychometrics (intelligence, emotional or otherwise, is defined by ‘what intelligence tests measure’). At a statistical level, psychometrics tells us that IQ tests have a greater reliability and a more consistent factor structure than tests of ‘EQ’. That objective statement can, however, hardly be expected to win over the more ‘EQ minded’. ‘Importance’ and ‘value’ are normative, subjective, relative and also rather emotionally laden terms.

So, let’s try to put a ‘human’ spin on this. Focus on a group of your friends. Now, first rank them in order of their intelligence, then in order of their ‘emotional intelligence’. You will find, like it or not, that you can carry out this task quite easily. Assuming, that is, that you have sufficient ‘EQ’ to have a group of friends and sufficient ‘IQ’ to understand the instructions. Most of us have, which suggests that natural selection probably saw both abilities as ‘keepers’.

If IQ and EQ are meaningful concepts, evolution will have driven them and it is in this context that their importance is best evaluated. Some would argue that technology has circumvented natural selection. So, has the ‘digital age’ thus shifted the balance of power between IQ and EQ? Maybe the stereotypical high-IQ computer nerd (think Sheldon in ‘the Big Bang Theory’) can now rely on the distancing effect of technologies that don’t require direct human interaction? Or maybe higher population density and the scramble for jobs now favours those who may not be so intellectually gifted but are socially streetwise? It rapidly becomes apparent that the skills are qualitatively different.

Setting IQ and EQ on either side of the same fulcrum just doesn’t work. In evolutionary terms, they are solutions to different problems linked together by the common driver of survival. The digital age hasn’t quite freed us from the necessity of solving both problems.

In the Pleistocene, our intellect helped us to keep warm and avoid predators, but we also needed social skills to reap the benefits of cooperation and avoid the pitfalls of social isolation. In the digital age, the problems have a different gloss on them – the new predators are likely to threaten our finances rather than eat us – but the basic challenges remain fundamentally the same.

Whether in the Pleistocene or today, individuals with an extreme imbalance between IQ and EQ may survive by playing to their main strength, whilst individuals lacking either will struggle, but overall the rational ‘choice’ has always been to excel as far as possible in both spheres. Would I rather be virtuous or happy? Would I rather have a high IQ or a high EQ? The clever money is on being a happy Socrates – with a lot of friends in high places!

By Dr Maria Leitner, British MENSA Supervisory Psychologist


Signup to receive the next issue of The New Idealist delivered straight to your inbox here.


Issue Seven: The New Future Issue (Annual Special Edition)
Issue Six: The Autism Issue
Issue Five: The Doomsday Edition (Extreme Weather Special)
Issue Four: The Issue We’re All Talking About (Guest Edited by the actress Jodhi May)
Issue Three: Has Obama been corrupted by the machine?
Issue Two: IQ VS EQ – Is Emotional Intelligence what you need to succeed in the digital age?
Issue One: Downwardly Mobile? Will the next generation find it harder to reach the next level?

Leave a Reply