Blogger Sisyphean recently wrote on this blog:

Emotionality, if we define it as reactivity, is entirely separate from the higher order cognitive functions.

Thank you for saying that, because one of the reasons I’ve always hated the term “emotional intelligence” is that historically and philosophically, there’s always been a clear distinction between emotions (that which feels, wills, and wants) and the intellect (that which thinks, reasons, understands, and knows).

I believe intelligence (intellect) is the slave of emotions in the sense that intelligence is the ability to problem solve and emotions make something a problem that needs solving. For example if I feel fear that someone will break into my house, that’s a problem that needs to be solved and I use my intelligence (problem solving ability) to build a stronger door.

A lot of people who are considered emotionally unintelligent are actually intelligent in every way, they just have malfunctioning emotions so they don’t feel fear (and other emotions) at the appropriate times. They’re smart enough to know they should turn off the stove, but since they have no fear of the house burning down, it’s not a problem for them to solve. In other words, they’re not motivated, but because their behavior resembles that of someone who is too stupid to turn off the stove, they are falsely labeled emotionally unintelligent.

Intelligence and feelings (physical or emotional) probably evolved together because from an evolutionary perspective, what good are feelings without the intelligence to act on them and what good is intelligence if you have no feelings to act on? What good is feeling pain when you cut yourself if you lack the intelligence to learn from the experience and avoid the object that cut you? Thus I don’t believe animals very lacking in intelligence feel pain because there’d be no purpose in it evolving.

Our emotions evolved to motivate us to engage in behaviors that increase the odds that we will replicate our genes and avoid behaviors that will decrease the odds of us replicating our genes. So we feel fear so that we don’t get ourselves killed before reproducing and we feel love so that we can bond with someone to reproduce with and we feel greed so that we can gather enough wealth to help ourselves, and those who share our genes like our family and co-ethnics.

Meanwhile our intelligence evolved to adapt to the needs and wants of our emotions, but if our emotions are maladaptive, our behavior will be too, even if our intelligence is brilliant. Intelligence is the cognitive ability to adapt, but that doesn’t mean the goals we are adapting to are adaptive as defined by evolution, because the part of the brain that solves the problems is separate from the part of the brain that generates the problems that need solving.

Having said all that, I do believe some people are cognitively better at reading the emotions of others and understanding their motives, but I would call this social intelligence, because the term emotional intelligence has been mixed too much with personality and emotional traits to be a coherent concept.