Way back when I was a wee graduate student at the University of New Hampshire, I was working with Jack Mayer on developing one of the first ability-based measures of emotional intelligence (Mayer & Geher, 1996). I had no clue at the time that working with Jack on this topic was really working at the epicenter of one of the most cutting-edge concepts in all of psychology.
Emotional intelligence (EI) has gone on to be considered a major area of personality functioning—predictive of all kinds of life outcomes. Arguably more important than IQ, EI has, over the past several decades, asserted itself as a foundational aspect of what it means to be human.
Studying the Emotional Intelligence/Creativity Link
In a recent study conducted by me and two of my awesome graduate students, Olivia Jewell and Kian Betancourt, we sought to examine the relationship between a facet of emotional intelligence (we call it “empathic accuracy”) and creativity. Past research on the relationship between emotional intelligence and creativity has been mixed.
That said, we proposed that the ability to accurately estimate the emotions of another would be related to ratings of one's creative writing. Why? Our reasoning is essentially this: People who are rated as highly creative are rated as such by other people—thus, there is an inherent social aspect to creativity. Past scholars in the field of evolutionary psychology, in fact, have argued that human creativity largely evolved for social purposes—to demonstrate dispositional features of oneself to others in domains such as mating (see Geher & Miller, 2008). As such, the ability to hone in on others’ emotions should correspond to an increase in the quality of one’s creative products.
To test this idea, we had over 200 adults complete the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Hill, Raste, & Plumb, 2001), a long-standing measure of empathic accuracy that involves viewing photos of people’s eyes and the surrounding area as they make various emotional expressions. Participants who complete this measure guess which emotions are being expressed, and for each participant, a total score is computed based on how many he or she got right.
Our participants were then presented with two New Yorker cartoons—without captions. One showed a guy in a business suit being stuffed into a cannon. The other depicted the Grim Reaper standing in the outfield at a baseball game. Participants were asked to write the best caption they could for each. In a later phase, these captions were rated by three independent judges across 10 creativity dimensions (such as imaginativeness and humor).
The findings were pretty clear: For 9 of the 10 creativity dimensions, high scores on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test (our measure of EI) were positively related to creativity scores. In fact, only the “crudeness” of the caption was not related to EI. So spontaneous samples of creativity seem to go hand-in-hand with the empathic-accuracy component of EI.
In terms of the personality traits, we found something else. Conscientiousness was strongly related to most markers of creativity—negatively related, that is. Participants who scored higher on conscientiousness wrote captions that were generally lower on the dimensions of “imaginativeness,” “insightfulness,” and “funniness.” With zero offense meant to the highly conscientious among us (and I do consider myself in that category), you have to admit that this is pretty interesting!
Emotional intelligence is a basic feature of human psychology—with implications for intimate relationships, educational outcomes, and business. Here, we add to the mountain of literature on emotional intelligence. People who are high in EI seem to have a leg up when it comes to creativity. All the more reason to help cultivate emotional abilities across the lifespan.
Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Hill, J., Raste, Y., & Plumb, I. (2001). The ‘Reading the mind in the eyes’ Test revised version: A study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism. Journal Of Child Psychology And Psychiatry, 42(2), 241–251. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/1469-7610.00715
Geher, G., Betancourt, K., & Jewell, O. (2017). The link between emotional intelligence and creativity. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality.
Geher, G., & Miller, G. F. (Eds., 2008). Mating Intelligence: Sex, Relationships, and the Mind’s Reproductive System. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Mayer, J.D., & Geher, G. (1996). Emotional intelligence and the identification of emotion. Intelligence, 22, 89-113.