It turns out that a scientist can see the future by watching four-year-olds interact with a piece of candy. The researcher invites the children, one by one, into a plain room and begins the gentle torture. You can have this piece of candy right now, he says. But if you wait while I leave the room for a while, you can have two pieces of candy when I get back. And then he leaves.
Some children grab for the treat the minute he's out the door. Some last a few minutes before they give in. But others are determined to wait. They cover their eyes; they put their heads down; they sing to themselves; they try to play games or even fall asleep. When the researcher returns, he gives these children their hard-earned pieces of candy. And then, science waits for them to grow up.
By the time the children reach high school, something remarkable has happened. A survey of the children's parents and teachers found that those who as four-year-olds had enough self-control to hold out for the second piece of candy generally grew up to be better adjusted, more popular, adventurous, confident and dependable teenagers. The children who gave in to temptation early on were more likely to be lonely, easily frustrated and inflexible. They could not endure stress and shied away from challenges.
When we think of brilliance we see Einstein, a thinking machine with skin and mismatched socks. High achievers, we imagine, were wired for greatness from birth. But then you have to wonder why, over time, natural talent seems to waken in some people and dim in others. This is where the candy comes in. It seems that the ability to delay reward is a master skill, a triumph of the logical brain over the irresponsible one. It is a sign, in short, of emotional intelligence. And it doesn't show up on an IQ test.
For most of this century, scientists have worshipped the hardware of the brain and the software of the mind; the messy powers of the heart were left to the poets. But brain theory could simply not explain the questions we wonder about most: why some people just seem to have a gift for living well; why the smartest kid in the class will probably not end up the richest; why we like some people virtually on sight and distrust others; why some people remain upbeat in the face of troubles that would sink a less resistant soul. What qualities of the mind or spirit, in short, determine who succeeds?
The phrase "emotional intelligence" was coined by researchers five years ago to describe qualities like understanding one's own feelings, sympathy for the feelings of others and "the regulation of emotion in a way that enhances living". This notion is about to bound into the national conversation, conveniently shortened to EQ, thanks to a new book, Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. Goleman has brought together a decade's worth of research into how the mind processes feelings. His goal, he announces on the cover, is to redefine what it means to be smart. His theory: when it comes to predicting people's success, brain capacity as measured by IQ may actually matter less than the qualities of mind once thought of as "character".
At first glance, there would seem to be little that's new here. There may be no less original idea than the notion that our hearts have authority over our heads. "I was so angry," we say, "I couldn't think straight." Neither is it surprising that "people skills" are useful, which amounts to saying it's good to be nice. But if it were that simple, the book would not be quite so interesting or its implications so controversial.
This is no abstract investigation. Goleman is looking for methods to restore "politeness to our streets and caring in our community life". He sees practical applications everywhere for how companies should decide whom to hire, how couples can increase the odds that their marriages will last, how parents should raise their children and how schools should teach them. When street gangs substitute for families and schoolyard insults end in knife attacks, when more than half of marriages end in divorce, when the majority of the children murdered in this country are killed by their parents, many of whom say they were trying to discipline the child for behavior like blocking the TV or crying too much, it suggests a demand for basic emotional education.
And it is here the arguments will break out. While many researchers in this relatively new field are glad to see emotional issues finally taken seriously, they fear that a notion as handy as EQ invites misuse. "People have a variety of emotion," argues Harvard psychology professor Jerome Kagan. "Some people handle anger well but can't handle fear. Some people can't take joy. So each emotion has to be viewed differently." EQ is not the opposite of IQ. Some people are blessed with a lot of both, but some with little of either. What researchers have been trying to understand is how they work together; how one's ability to handle stress, for instance, affects the ability to concentrate and put intelligence to use. Among the ingredients for success, researchers now generally agree that IQ counts for about 20%; the rest depends on everything from social class to luck.