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Ability, Skill and Potential

One of the problems with defining emotional intelligence is the problem with the terms used in creating the definition. For example, the leading researchers, Mayer and Salovey, talk about the “ability model” of EI. (See EI definitions) They also say their test, the MSCEIT, is an “ability” test of emotional intelligence. Yet what do they mean by “ability”? I used Microsoft Word to check some synonyms for ability. Here are three things I found:

- One of the synonyms for ability is "capability". Another is "skill".

- One of the synonyms for capability is "potential".

- Synonyms for skill include proficiency and expertise.

So it goes like this

Ability >

A. Capability > Potential
B. Skill > Proficiency, Expertise

If we then consider a baby, it seems fair to say that “A baby has potential, but not skills.” So what did Mayer and Salovey mean when they first started talking about ability? Did they mean potential? Or skill, proficiency and expertise?

If they mean it is a skill, or a "set of skills" as they first hypothesized in 1990, then there is a basic inconsistency in their thinking. Jack Mayer said you can't teach intelligence and he gave the example that we don't talk about teaching math "intelligence". (Source) I agree with him. You don't teach intelligence, you develop it. Yet I think even Jack and Peter Salovey would have to agree that skills can be taught.

So where does this leave their definition of EI? I am afraid it leaves it on an unstable, unsupportable foundation.

What we need then, is a better definition of emotional intelligence. If you are interested in my proposed definition you can see it on this page. But my goal in writing this article is not to promote my definition. It is to get you thinking about the problems with the Mayer Salovey definition and the problems with the Mayer Salovey Caruso test, the MSCEIT, which they call a test of emotional intelligence. If their definition of EI is flawed, then how can we accept their test as being a true test of emotional intelligence?

I personally feel sad as I write this. For a long time I supported the work of Jack, Peter and David. But with time I have seen more and more problems with it. I feel sad because I don't know of anyone else who has put as much thought or effort into designing what might deserve to be called a definition of emotional intelligence. I sincerely hope that someone in the academic community will offer us a new definition of EI which does not have same kinds of problems as the Mayer Salovey model.

S. Hein
July 4, 2007



Here is the quote

It doesn't make sense to me to talk about teaching an intelligence, although I know many people use that phrase. If emotional intelligence is like most other abilities, it is shaped partly by genetics and partly by environment. I like to talk about teaching knowledge. And I think it makes sense to talk about teaching emotional knowledge. I use this analogy: We don't say, "Can you learn math intelligence?" We say, "Can you learn algebra?"

John Mayer from Psychology Today, July/August 1999, Vol. 32 Issue 4, p20.


Set of skills

Here is the quote

This article presents a framework for emotional intelligence, a set of skills hypothesized to contribute to the accurate appraisal and expression of emotion in oneself and in others, the effective regulation of emotion in self and others, and the use of feelings to motivate, plan and achieve in one's life.

Emotional Intelligence, Peter Salovey, & John D. Mayer-- Imagination, Cognition, and Personality (1990),9, 185-211. See this file for notes on the article

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