What is the difference between emotional intelligence and common sense?

The popular sitcom, ‘Big Bang Theory’ features a character, Sheldon Cooper. He’s a prodigy, a genius, and a hyper logical thinker. But Jim Parson’s character lacks one key life skill. Anyone who watches the show knows that Sheldon is socially unskilled. He cannot grasp basic humour, understand sarcasm, or connect with others on their level (because he lacks empathy). In short, Sheldon has a lot of common sense, but very little emotional intelligence.

It’s just a show, but there are really people out there who are socially at a disadvantage. They may have been born with a knack for common sense, but are forced to work at their emotional intelligence daily. There are many fundamental differences between common sense and emotional intelligence. In some cases, the two can be viewed as mutually exclusive. However, it is safe to say that both common sense and emotional intelligence can coexist in the mind of a human being.

Before we look at the characteristic differences between IQ and EQ, let’s first explore the technical differences. These will help you understand the two different types of intelligences in terms of how they are defined as well as how they are measured.


  1. How they are tested

Your IQ is tested by standardised tests which measure your problem solving abilities and your mathematical proficiency. Emotional intelligence is also tested through standardised questions which are today becoming more and more refined to accuracy. However, these tests aim to put you in hypothetical situations with other people. IQ tests focus on problems, while EQ tests focus on social situations.


  1. How they are scored

After you’ve taken an IQ test you will be given a score. This is your IQ and may slightly vary depending on your age. However, it’s a score that will likely remain the same throughout your life. EQ tests score you on various categories. These may include (but are not limited to) honesty & trust, leadership skills, conflict resolution, self image, anger management, change/stress adaptability, and assertiveness. An overall score may be given for an EQ test, but the various categories are more likely to carry individual weight for the person or company giving the test.


  1. How they are defined

Common sense is the ability to view a situation from a logical standpoint and come up with a solution that best suits you. Emotional intelligence is the ability to view social situations from the perspective of other people and come up with a solution that best suits everyone involved.


It’s a lot more interesting to look at common sense and emotional intelligence in terms of how they show forth in people. For now, we’ll look at seven different characteristics of emotional intelligence and how those compare to common sense. The easiest way to do this is to take social examples and hypothesise how someone with high emotional intelligence will react differently to someone with high intellectual intelligence.


  1. A co-worker arrives at work with a dejected demeanour and relays a problem to you regarding a family member
  • Common sense: In this situation, common sense dictates that there is a problem, and that the person who has the problem has brought it to you for the purpose of coming up with a solution. You will likely tell the person what they should do in order to fix the situation, or prevent it from happening again. In doing this your intentions are good, but more often than not, the person with the problem is looking for support rather than advice.
  • Emotional intelligence: Someone with a high EQ will approach the dejected co-worker with the intention to provide comfort. You will display empathy about the situation and focus more on the person than the problem itself. Because the co-worker didn’t explicitly ask you for advice, your focus will not be on solving the problem, but rather on allowing him or her to vent their frustration. You will then likely let them know that you are there to listen if they need a shoulder to cry on in future.


  1. You get into an argument with your colleague about a task that you allegedly did not perform properly
  • Common sense: In a situation where work conflict arises, your common sense will usually tell you to defend yourself. When listening to your colleague’s argument, you will only hear the accusations behind the words. When these accusations are highlighted in your mind, you will prepare a counter argument in your mind to defend your position. In your mind, your job, reputation and pride are at stake; and they must be defended at all costs.
  • Emotional intelligence: If you have a high EQ, you will be more inclined to listen to the other side of the argument without focussing too hard on the accusations. Instead, you will try to understand your colleague’s concerns and address them one at a time in a calm manner. In so doing, you will relay your side of the argument; but only as far as it goes to relieve his or her anxiety. Throughout the entire discussion you will attempt to remain calm. You will also ask your colleague questions pertaining to his or her argument so that you have a full understanding of their position in the matter.


  1. You meet someone new at a social event and they tell you about their job
  • Common sense: The common sense side of a new encounter can often end a relationship before it even has a chance to begin. You may be tempted to listen to the other person’s job description for the sake of telling them yours. This conversation will then conclude in you both knowing what the other person does. Perhaps one of you will comment on what you know about the other’s job. But ultimately, the conversation will hit a dead end, and despite some common ground, you will not have anything more to talk about.
  • Emotional intelligence: Instead of simply exchanging information between you and the new acquaintance, you will aim to fully explore their conversational contribution. When they tell you about their job, you may ask more questions about it. “Is this the job you have always wanted to do?” will lead to a more interesting exchange of what job the person saw themselves doing when they were a child. It may open the door to the job they actually aspire to do in the future. At the very worst, the person will answer that they love their job, and will continue talking about it to you with excitement.


  1. You are the manager at a company and your team is under performing
  • Common sense: The common sense part of your brain may prompt you to take control of your team and direct them into a more productive pattern of work; but how you do this may not be as effective as what you’d like. Taking charge of the situation and deciding on everyone else’s behalf what the team should do differently will probably come naturally to someone who’s inclined to a dominant style of common sense thinking.
  • Emotional intelligence: An emotionally intelligent leader will seek to gather input from everyone involved. If this is you, you’ll take an approach of discussion, asking questions rather than telling everyone what to do. Leaders have a human quality to them that gets recognised by those under them. Emotionally intelligent people seek to be relatable to their team members and will make the solution to a problem a team effort.


  1. After five years of working in the same office, you learn that within a week your company will be moving to new premises
  • Common sense: People who thrive on common sense are usually not fond of change. Because of their resistance to change, they tend to struggle adapting to new environments and new challenges. If you found yourself in this situation, you would probably take weeks or even months to adapt to the move. It would cause you some anxiety and you would see it as a disruption rather than a fresh start.
  • Emotional intelligence: However, if you adapt quickly, an office move may seem more to you like an adventure. The opportunity to start fresh in a new environment may excite you. In your eyes, change means growth; which is why you progress with a smile on your face during and after the move. Adapting comes easy to you and a few days haven’t even passed before you feel right at home at the office’s new premises.


  1. Your roommate has failed to tidy the house for three weeks in a row
  • Common sense: Those of us who are hyper logical thinkers will often attempt to impose that logic onto others. In a case such as this one, you will likely try to ‘teach’ your roommate to carry out his or her duties without having to be told. This can often lead to conflict because the person you’re living with is a scatterbrain, someone who is whimsical, or simply nothing more than a forgetful individual who doesn’t see cleaning as a priority.
  • Emotional intelligence: On the other hand, if you think emotionally (or empathetically), things such as tasks and duties will not bother you as much. If dishes need to be washed, you’ll do them yourself—regardless of whose turn it is. In the same way, however, you will stick to your own duties if there are any assigned to you. In your mind you’d like to keep things as amicable as possible between yourself and your roommate, and therefore silly little arguments will not get headway with you. To put is simply, the relationship is more important than the duty.


  1. A client of yours was invoiced three weeks ago but has still neglected to pay you
  • Common sense: Logically you will feel the need to use hostile means to force someone to pay you. After all, that seems to be the only language some people understand. Common sense will probably tell you to list this client with debt collectors, and perhaps even threaten them with legal action if they don’t pay you on time. In the process of doing all this, you will cause a disconnect between yourself and the customer. He or she will perceive themselves as your enemy and will probably not do business with you again. Worse than that, they are likely to disregard your request because of your hostile approach.
  • Emotional intelligence: An emotionally intelligent thinker will realise that threats will only make matters worse. First of all, you want to avoid alienating your client. Second, don’t want to get the client’s back up. You therefore opt instead to appeal to your client’s sense of humanity, explaining to him or her how important the money is why it’s important that it gets paid on time. This will result in the client being retained and will make future payment delays less likely.

As we can see, emotionally intelligent people react to people in accordance with their emotions. People with common sense react to problems, with very little consideration for the person involved. This is the fundamental difference between common sense and emotional intelligence. Those who recognise emotions in others will be more adept in solving personal dilemmas, while those with high intellectual intelligence will look to solve the problem separate from emotion or empathy.


Both emotional intelligence and common sense have a place in our lives. Again, the two should not be viewed as mutually exclusive—despite their vast differences. Instead, a balance should be cultivated by those who are already blessed with high IQs. If emotional intelligence and empathy are rare traits in your personality, remember that even the Sheldon Coopers of the world can learn to play well with others.