On Emotional Intelligence: A Conversation with Daniel Goleman - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

September 1, 1996

On Emotional Intelligence: A Conversation with Daniel Goleman

Schools have historically concentrated on boosting students' cognitive abilities. But developing students' emotional smarts, argues Daniel Goleman, is just as vital.

Social-emotional learning

Traditional conceptions of intelligence focus on cognitive skills and knowledge. You've investigated the idea of "emotional intelligence." What do you mean by that term?

Emotional intelligence is a different way of being smart. It includes knowing what your feelings are and using your feelings to make good decisions in life. It's being able to manage distressing moods well and control impulses. It's being motivated and remaining hopeful and optimistic when you have setbacks in working toward goals. It's empathy; knowing what the people around you are feeling. And it's social skill—getting along well with other people, managing emotions in relationships, being able to persuade or lead others.

And you contend that emotional intelligence is just as important as the more familiar concept of IQ?

Both types of intelligence are important, but they're important in different ways. IQ contributes, at best, about 20 percent to the factors that determine life success. That leaves 80 percent to everything else. There are many ways in which your destiny in life depends on having the skills that make up emotional intelligence.

Has research shown such a correlation?

Yes. For example, boys who are very impulsive, who are always getting in trouble in 2nd grade, are six to eight times more likely than other kids to commit crimes and be violent in their teen years. Sixth grade girls who confuse feelings of anxiety and anger, boredom, and hunger are the ones most likely to develop eating disorders in adolescence. What these girls lack is an awareness of what they are feeling; they're confused about what this feeling is and what it's called. So specific deficits in these skills can get a person in trouble, particularly a child who is growing into adulthood. On the other side, having these abilities can help you immensely in life; they affect everything from whether your marriage is going to last to how well you do on the job.

There's also a relationship between these emotional skills and academic success, isn't there?

Absolutely. It's not too surprising, really. We know that skills such as being able to resist impulsivity, or to delay gratification in pursuit of a long-term goal, are helpful in the academic arena.

Your book describes some fascinating findings from the "marshmallow" study at Stanford.

Right. Preschool kids were brought in one by one to a room and had a marshmallow put in front of them. They were told they could eat the marshmallow now, but if they delayed eating it until the researcher came back from running an errand, they could have two marshmallows. About one-third of them grabbed the single marshmallow right away while some waited a little longer, and about one-third were able to wait 15 or 20 minutes for the researcher to return.

When the researchers tracked down the children 14 years later, they found this test was an amazing predictor of how they did in school. The kids who waited were more emotionally stable, better liked by their teachers and their peers, and still able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals. The ones who grabbed were emotionally unstable, they fell apart under stress, they were more irritable, more likely to pick fights, not as well liked, and still not able to delay gratification. But the most powerful finding was that the ones who waited scored an average of 210 points higher on the SAT.

Was that because their emotional habits were more conducive to studying, sticking with a task and thinking that it would eventually pay off?

That's part of it. Obviously, a child who can stick with a task can do his homework or can finish an assignment much better than a child who is distracted and goes off and does something else.

There's another factor, too: the physiology of the brain and the relationship between the emotional brain and the brain's executive areas. The prefrontal lobes just behind the forehead are where working memory resides. Working memory is what you are paying attention to at any given point. So everything you are mulling over, making a decision about, or are learning, is at first in working memory. All learning is in working memory. And the emotional centers that control moods like anxiety or anger have very strong connections to the prefrontal areas. So if a child is chronically anxious or angry or upset in some way, he experiences that as intruding thoughts. He can't keep his mind off the thing he is worried about.

Now working memory has a limited attention capacity. So, to the extent that it is occupied by these intrusive thoughts, it shrinks what's available in working memory to think about what you are trying to learn.

Is that what's occurring when someone has "test anxiety"?

Yes, test anxiety is a very good example. You can think of nothing else except the fact that you may fail. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because your working memory cannot manage both the extreme anxiety and the demands for retrieving the information that would help you pass. So I think that's why we find that children whose emotional lives are more under control and better managed are able to learn more.

We all know people who have a lot of self-insight, or who are virtuosos in social situations. But are those kinds of personality traits something that people are born with, or can everyone be helped to develop them?

The good news about emotional intelligence is that it is virtually all learned. Even though newborn children differ in terms of their temperament, for example, they are highly malleable.

The best data on this come from Jerome Kagan, who studied shy kids. He found that you can identify a tendency toward shyness within the first two weeks of life, by looking at how much an infant startles to a noise or whether they are likely to shy away from stimulating, new, novel, uncertain experiences. He followed kids from birth into childhood and teenage years and found that this is a remarkable predictor of shyness.

But he also discovered that a sub-group of children whose newborn behaviors suggested they would be shy turned out not to be. Kagan found that the parents of this group treated them differently. Instead of catering to the children's shyness and protecting them from the world, these parents pushed them a bit into challenging situations; you know, meet a new kid, let's go to this new place. Not in a way that overwhelmed them but in a way that gave them the continued experience of mastering something new. And by the time they got to kindergarten, those kids weren't shy. They weren't the most extroverted, but they weren't inordinately shy either.

What's the significance of these findings?

Well, they suggest something that, in theory, we've known all along: the brain is enormously malleable during childhood. The brain's regulatory centers for emotional response are among the last parts to become anatomically mature. They continue to grow into adolescence.

This is vitally important, because we're finding that the repeated emotional lessons of a child's life literally shape the brain circuits for that response. So if a child learns to manage his anger well, or learns to calm or soothe himself, or to be empathic, that's a lifelong strength.

That's why it's so critical that we help children develop the skills of emotional intelligence.

What about children who learn the wrong emotional responses from early on; who come from abusive homes, for example. Can they re-learn emotional skills or do the initial strategies become "hard-wired" in the brain?

It's harder, but the sooner we begin to teach children appropriate emotional responses the sooner these responses can become a part of their repertoire. A child may have learned that when you get mad, you yell and you hit. Someone has to help these children learn an alternative response that becomes stronger than the initial one. So instead of yelling and hitting, the child will stop, calm down, think before she acts, and so on.

Again, the good news about childhood is that it's a wonderful palette to work with. It may look like it's been painted on, but you can keep painting and eventually children can learn healthier emotional responses. The literature on resilient children, those who have grown up in the worst circumstances and yet thrived, shows that what made the difference wasn't the terrible circumstance of their chaotic home life, but the fact that one caring adult really got involved in their lives and helped them out. And oftentimes that person is a teacher.

Before talking about what schools can do to foster emotional intelligence, what can you say about the current state of the emotional well-being of children?

Childhood is harder than it used to be; we've got data on that. For example, in the last 20 years or so the rate of teen homicide has quadrupled and teen suicide tripled, and forcible rape among teens has doubled. Those are the headline-making statistics.

But there are other more subtle indicators of a growing general emotional malaise among children. Thomas Achenbach at the University of Vermont studied a random sample of American kids in the mid-70s and a comparable sample in the late '80s. He had them rated by their parents and teachers and found that, across the board, American kids on average had a growing deficit in these emotional skills. They had gone down on 40 indicators of emotional well-being, which is very alarming. This doesn't mean there aren't great kids, but on average kids were more impulsive, more disobedient, more angry, more lonely, more depressed, more anxious, and so on.

Let's face it: childhood has changed, and not necessarily in ways that anyone intended. The state of the economy now demands that parents work much harder and longer than they had to, so they have less discretionary time to spend with their kids than their own parents had with them. More families live in neighborhoods where they're scared about the kids even playing down the street, let alone going into a neighbor's house. And kidsare spending more time glued to a TV or in front of a computer, away from other children or adults. And most of the emotional skills I've discussed aren't learned on your own, they're learned through your interaction with other children and adults. That's why the emphasis on computers concerns me, helpful as they can be. More time with computers and TV means less time with other people. The changes in families are another reason I think it's vital that schools begin to teach these emotional skills, to promote "emotional literacy."

You're familiar with schools that have been trying to teach emotional literacy. How are they doing this?

A good example is the program developed in the New Haven schools, which goes from 1st through 12th grade and is developmentally appropriate. The program addresses all the skills I mentioned before, like empathy, how to calm yourself down when you are feeling anxious, and so on. In some grades, lessons in emotional intelligence are taught as a separate topic three times a week. In other grades it's part of courses such as health, even math or study skills. And all the teachers are familiar with the ideas and look for opportunities to teach them. So whenever a child is upset, it's an opportunity to make sure that they learn something from that experience that will help them.

In New Haven, they also use techniques that make healthy emotional responses a pervasive part of the school culture or environment. For example, a school I recently visited had a "stoplight" poster on the wall of every room. It indicates to kids that whenever you are distressed or upset or you have a problem, red light—stop, calm down, and think before you act. Yellow light—think about a number of different things you could do and what the consequences will be. Green light—pick the best one and try it out. Now that's a wonderful lesson in impulse control, in soothing yourself, and in making the distinction between having the feeling and what you do, how you act when you have the feeling. These are crucial lessons and kids are really learning them.

That's encouraging, because one of the trends that worries educators is that students seem to be more impulsive, more prone to act without thinking about the consequences.

I've taken aside 7th graders in New Haven and said, "Look, I know they teach you this stuff, but does it really make any difference to you?" And they all have stories to tell about how they're using these skills in their lives. In the culture of adolescents in New Haven, if someone "disses" you, you have to fight them; it's the code. But I talked to this kid, and he said: "You know, this guy was dissing my sneaks, and you know what I did? I told him I didn't agree with him. I like my shoes. And then I walked away." Well, that's revolutionary, and what's happening is that children are expanding their emotional repertoire in some healthy ways.

What are they finding in terms of results?

Well, it works. They've found that students are better able to control their impulses, they've improved their behavior, they have better conflict-resolution skills and skills in handling interpersonal problems.

That's consistent with what's happening in other programs aimed at emotional literacy. It seems important that this emotional literacy curriculum is a schoolwide effort; it's not just isolating the kids who appear to have the worst emotional problems. Ghettoizing is the wrong approach. For one thing, the decline in emotional well-being holds true for all groups of kids, from wealthy areas and poor ones. These lessons are not just for so-called problem kids. The public appears to be very skeptical these days about curriculums that address social issues, or that ask kids to work on their emotions instead of on their reading and math.

Isn't that a major obstacle to broader application of these ideas by schools?

Actually I've encountered the reverse. Parents and teachers are very interested in bringing this sort of curriculum into the schools, because they see that children need it. When they understand that you can do this without taking any time from the basics—which they've been able to do in New Haven—they're very supportive. It just makes good sense.

Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?