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Does Emotional Intelligence Exist?

Critically thinking about emotion, intelligence, and self-regulation.

Key points

  • Emotional intelligence (EI) has been conceptualized in many different ways.
  • There is debate in the field of psychology over whether EI is actually a type of intelligence.
  • It may be more useful to think of EI as a combination of skills, traits, and behaviors that can be developed over time.

I’ve always been interested in the topic of emotional intelligence (EI) and how it’s conceptualized in the realm of psychology—a topic that has gained quite a bit of traction in popular culture over recent years. I even co-supervised a Ph.D. on transformative learning and its relationship with EI. In the resulting thesis, EI was defined as “a maturity that facilitates the management of emotions, with respect to their appraisal and expression” (Casey, 2018; see also Goleman, 1996; Salovey & Mayer, 1990). Now, I’m not saying that this is the one and only description of EI or even that it’s the best one. Rather, it is a conceptualization that gets you thinking: Is EI really intelligence? Furthermore, this is not to say that EI isn’t important—it is—but if it’s not a type of intelligence, then what is it?

I recently read a very interesting piece here on Psychology Today by Ronald Riggio, which helped reignite my questioning of emotional intelligence. He posits that EI is distinct from traditional perspectives on intelligence and that calling it a form of intelligence, to some extent, implies that we are born with it. A better way of looking at EI, Riggio suggests, is to think of it as a skill set that requires development.

What emotional intelligence is—and isn't

Let’s start by saying that intelligence is one of the messiest topic areas in all of psychology. We don’t really know what it is (debate and controversy exist over definitions and conceptualizations), but what we do know is that—broadly speaking—whatever it is, it’s one of the finest predictors of outcomes in all psychology research. Of course, its ability to “predict” is dictated by how it’s operationally defined and, likewise, assessed—but that’s another issue for another day. For me—and for the purpose of this post—I consider intelligence to be akin to working memory performance: that is, speed, efficiency, and accuracy of information processing, which buffers across currently attended information and long-term knowledge.

How intelligence is “achieved” is also quite debatable. I think it’s wrong to simply assume that intelligence is exclusively something that we’re “born with”—a nature argument. There’s much to be said about the influence of cognitive development that occurs during infancy, toddlerhood, and childhood on intelligence—that is, nurture is at least equally important. There’s been some debate regarding how we attribute “nature” factors the way we do, particularly in intelligence research. For example, correlations are often drawn between intelligent parents of intelligent children, which, of course, implies some level of inherited intelligence. However, it would be wrong to jump to such a conclusion based on some of this research’s correlational evidence. Why?

Well, for example, intelligent people generally value education, have good jobs, are more organized, and know to prioritize different aspects of their lives. Taking these factors into account, such people will likely promote education and engage in learning activities with their kids. Thus, intelligent adults can yield intelligent kids because of the environment they create for them. Some have even noted the socio-economic aspects of this as well: I’ve seen research-related memes (yes, they exist) making the rounds online, suggesting that one’s zip code is a strong predictor of intelligence. The point is, like EI, general intelligence may not be an exclusive function of “nature” either.

But just because nature and nurture play important, integrated roles in both general intelligence and EI doesn’t mean that EI is a form of intelligence. Harking back to EI conceptualization, it always occurred to me that it represented a coupling of personality and self-regulation. This perspective is somewhat consistent with Riggio’s description of EI—or “emotional skills”—with a focus on sensitivity, expressiveness, and control.

With respect to sensitivity and expressiveness, the personality aspect is highlighted (e.g., consider empathy). This is further justified through EI’s description above as a form of maturity, which likewise has personality links. However, as I have argued here in the past, personality is essentially just a series of reinforced response tendencies. They can evolve over time, as needs might be—for example, consistent with behaviorist approaches to learning. This elaboration suggests EI is neither something we’re born with (being akin to personality “traits” that may develop over time) nor does it seem very much akin to intelligence, per se.

Perhaps the alignment with self-regulation is a bit more straightforward—we self-regulate through monitoring and managing our feelings and associated thoughts and inhibit those deemed inappropriate in certain contexts—a concept similar to executive functioning. With that, executive functioning is part-and-parcel with working memory, the efficiency of which I describe above as my preferred take on “intelligence.” So, if there’s going to be an argument made for EI genuinely being, at the very least, a form of intelligence… this is it.

Of course, this argument requires that you happen to agree with the working memory stance on intelligence—and if that’s the case, then it only seems to explain some aspect of EI. So, where do we go from here? Does this mean that EI is a form of intelligence or just happens to be facilitated by intelligence?

Ultimately, the debate regarding the intelligence aspect of EI isn’t about debating nature, nurture, or both. It’s a question of what intelligence is more generally (and what it’s not). Only then can we truly discern whether emotional “intelligence” is the appropriate term. Nevertheless, it is useful and accurate to consider EI as a set of skills, traits, and/or behaviors because it is likely something that can develop and evolve over time. That said, further research is necessary to evaluate the extent of such development.


Casey, H. (2018). Transformative Learning: An Exploration of the BA in Community and Family Studies Graduates’ Experiences. National University of Ireland, Galway: Doctoral Dissertation.

Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ. Bloomsbury.

Salovey, P., Mayer, J.. (1990). Emotional Intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9(3), 185–211.

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