Theoretical Background
and Support

Emotional Intelligence is Learned

Although children are born with different temperaments, or how they approach things—social, laid back, intense, shy, etc., EQ helps parents and teachers work with these qualities so children can better cope in the world. For example, instead of protecting shy children from the world and catering to them, parents encouraged their young children to participate in challenging situations (meeting new kids, going to new places). They encouraged in ways that kids weren't overwhelmed but used methods that gave the children the experience of mastering something new. By the time these children reached kindergarten age, they weren't shy. They weren't the most outgoing children, but they weren't the most withdrawn either.

There are some patterns that block the use of a person's emotional intelligence: fear and worry, avoiding pain, negative self-image, unrealistic expectations, and blaming others. When these blocks occur and emotional intelligence isn't used, people end up acting in unsuccessful ways. The goal is to be more informed about emotions and let them help overcome obstacles in life.

Much information has been written on the subject of emotional intelligence and sometimes sorting out the information can be confusing. The first step to increasing emotional intelligence is self-awareness. What are your feelings and why are you feeling that way? Although this can be very difficult for some, once a person begins to understand himself or herself, he or she can begin to develop other emotional skills, which leads to more emotional intelligence.

"Emotional Intelligence" (Bantam; 352 pages; $23.95), a fascinating book written by Daniel Goleman ( explains that discoveries in brain research that prove that emotional stability is more important than IQ in determining an individual's success in life. One of the highlights of the book that Goleman explains to this audience of foundation leaders, educators and grants donors is a test administered 30 years ago that Goleman calls "The Marshmallow Challenge."

In this experiment, 4-year-old children were individually called into a room at Stanford University during the 1960s; there a kindly man gave a marshmallow to each of them and said they could eat the marshmallow right now, or wait for him to come back from an errand, at which point they would get two marshmallows. Goleman gets everyone chuckling as he describes watching a film of the preschoolers while they waited for the nice man to come back. Some of them covered their eyes or rested their heads on their arms so they wouldn't have to look at the marshmallow, or played games or sang to keep their thoughts off the single marshmallow and wait for the promised double prize. Others -- about a third of the group -- simply watched the man leave and ate the marshmallow within seconds.

What is startling about this test, submits Goleman, is its diagnostic power: A dozen years later the same children were tracked down as adolescents and tested again, and "the emotional and social difference between the grab-the-marshmallow preschoolers and their gratification- delaying peers was dramatic," Goleman says.

The ones who had resisted the marshmallow were clearly more socially competent than the others. "They were less likely to go to pieces, freeze or regress under stress, or become rattled and disorganized when pressured; they embraced challenges and pursued them instead of giving up even in the face of difficulties; they were self-reliant and confident, trustworthy and dependable."

The third or so who grabbed the marshmallow were "more likely to be seen as shying away from social contacts, to be stubborn and indecisive, to be easily upset by frustrations, to think of themselves as unworthy, to become immobilized by stress, to be mistrustful or prone to jealousy, to overreact with a sharp temper," and so forth.

And all because of a lone marshmallow? In fact, Goleman explains, it's all because of a lone neuron only recently discovered that bypasses the neocortex, where rational decisions are made, and goes straight to the amygdala, or emotional center of the brain, where quicker, more primitive "fight or flight" responses occur -- and, tellingly, are stored for future use. The more that emotional memories involving temper, frustration, anxiety, depression, impulse and fear pile up in early adolescence, the more the amygdala can "hijack the rest of the brain," Goleman says, "by flooding it with strong and inappropriate emotions, causing us to wonder later, `why did I overreact?' " But if the emotions stored are those of restraint, self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, empathy, hope and optimism, we become endowed with an "emotional intelligence" that serves rather than enslaves us for the rest of our lives.

The bad news, says Goleman, is that a widely acclaimed and disturbing study out of the University of Vermont has shown a "decline in emotional aptitude among children across the board." Rich or poor, East Coast or West Coast, inner city or suburb, children today are more vulnerable than ever to anger, depression, anxiety -- what Goleman calls a massive "emotional malaise." The result is that "boys who can't control their emotions later commit violent crime; girls who can't control emotion don't get violent, they get pregnant."

The good news, however, involves another recent discovery -- that the amygdala takes a long time to mature, around 15 or 16 years, which means to Goleman that "emotional intelligence can be taught, not only in the home but perhaps more importantly, in school." He points to two key programs in the Bay Area that are "miraculous" -- the Nueva Learning Center in Hillsborough, where classes such as "Self Science" show children how to identify, name and monitor emotions -- "your own and those that erupt in relationships"; and the Child Development Project in Oakland, where lessons in "emotional literacy" are "woven into the fabric of existing school life."

Goleman's own story is as intriguing as his book. The author or co-author of nearly a dozen other books involving brain research and behavior, Goleman experienced steady but modest sales until "Emotional Intelligence" hit the stores a few weeks ago and -- bam -- the cover of Time (and soon of Forbes), "Oprah Winfrey" and "20/20," huge sales and almost instant appearance on the top of best-seller lists throughout the country.

"The attention is unbelievable," he says. "Of course we can all learn something about our own emotions, but Oprah focused on one key point when she said the book shows `you're smarter than you've been told all your life.' She is someone who is obviously emotionally intelligent and successful because of it, and she wasn't the smartest person in class.

"But I think the book also points out the real strength in what has been a feminine preserve in this culture. Girls are raised to be emotionally astute and perceptive, but sons learn little about emotions except how to control anger. Women are absolutely more empathic than men on average, but they've felt powerless to bring up the idea of emotions as a serious topic."

The irony, Goleman muses, is that if he had written a book about women and emotion, school reform, emotion-based leadership in business or child psychology, "the book wouldn't have gotten much attention. As it happens this is a book about all those things, but women and children and school reform are marginalized in this society. So I come along with a lot of scientific data that says, `Hey, this stuff is consequential'; and maybe some doors are opening in our society."

Nancy K. Recker, M.A., Ohio State University

Next Page: Sociometry and Sociograms >