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Is Attitude always “more important” than IQ?

November 25th, 2015 · No Comments · Talents, Innovators


I enjoyed reading Travis Bradberry’s piece Why Attitude Is More Important Than IQ as I reframed the text in the context of his book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, which he co-authored with Jean Greaves, as well as Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which defines “mindset” as “an established set of attitudes held by someone.” Both are must-reads, and this post is not challenging their content. I simply have misgivings about the statement: “Attitude is more important than IQ.”

This is a great title marketing-wise because it’s memorable. Yet each time I see it mentioned on my various feeds, I can’t help cringing a little bit and going back to my initial quizzical reactions before I actually read the piece in its context:

  • I told myself “Always?”
  • What if people remember the title without reading the piece and then feel empowered to blindly assume the superiority of “attitude” over IQ, no matter what?

Comparing attitude and IQ is like comparing apples and oranges

“Attitude” and “IQ” cannot be measured by the same standard; one cannot be evaluated relative to the other or cannot be said to be “more important” that the other.

The meaning of the word attitude is very composite, starting with its original Italian definition of “disposition” and “posture” to a broader description as “the way you think and feel about someone or something,” “a feeling or way of thinking that affects a person’s behavior,” or even “a way of thinking and behaving that people regard as unfriendly, rude, etc.” The definition of IQ is more straightforward: “a number that represents your intelligence and that is based on your score on a special test,” even if we can sometimes question the standardized tests used to measure IQ.

You can show a bad attitude while being a member of Mensa, and many historical geniuses haven’t exactly been peaches. You can show a “great” attitude at work and yet believe that the earth is as flat as a pizza.

Attitude relates to socially accepted behaviors, social competence and interactions while IQ relates to information- and knowledge-processing capabilities that may not lead to social acceptance.

What I liked about Daniel Coleman’s landmark book in 2005 Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ is the fact that he was more prudent in the title itself. Yes, emotional intelligence “can matter more than IQ,” in multiple situations. Conversely, also, however, IQ could “matter more than emotional intelligence”…  and also in multiple situations.

Would we have Macintosh or iPhones if Steve Jobs had been all about attitude?

IQ alone is not enough, and it’s quite possible that backlash against IQ-idolization may have triggered an overemphasis on “attitude” even though we are speaking of two different worlds. In many cases, success is ultimately obtained by building consensus. As a result, it is obvious that attitude – or let me rather say “emotional intelligence”  — fosters quality interpersonal relationships, and that empathy facilitates mutual understanding, constructive feedback as well as business or personal success.

Yet, emotional intelligence is not the universal panacea. The features and content of this emotional intelligence can be shaped by implicit and explicit cultural values or biases, which can lead to intolerance or to rejecting people with a completely different history. For emotional intelligence to operate as a human bond, the people involved must belong to a fairly homogeneous group and implicitly share similar cultural choices and … maybe have similar IQs. You may be valued for your empathetic capabilities in your biology department and yet be looked at as a total disaster if you develop an evolutionary explanation of the history and diversity of life on earth to group of anti-Darwinians, who will peg your work as “insensitive” and dismiss everything you say based on what they believe.

As much as emotional intelligence is deemed to be a major factor for success, it can also nurture a recessive status quo where everybody has to feel, breathe and run with the pack, and so can become a serious impediment to innovation. Steve Jobs was definitely a man with attitude, but do you really believe we would have Macintosh or iPhones if he didn’t have the IQ to back up his swagger?

In fact, we can’t oversimplify things in terms of “attitude trumps IQ,” or vice versa, because the one usually informs the other. Emotional intelligence and maturity can be facets of a high-functioning theoretical brain, and a strong presence or helpful demeanor often stem from feeling competent and capable in a given situation. Proust was not spurred to write seven volumes by a multiple-choice question, after all.

Emotional intelligence enables us to “fit in,” adjust to a given context and feel good. Yet, IQ is what enables us to process the implicit knowledge embedded in this context, process it differently, question it, disrupt it and ultimately innovate. Pardon my romantic view of IQ…  but in the end, inventors often have to ruffle a lot of feathers and upset a lot of accepted “attitudes” to succeed!


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