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Emotional Intelligence

What Emotional Intelligence Is and Is Not

Does it exist? What is its significance?

Does emotional intelligence exist — and if so, is it of any importance? It first helps to know what emotional intelligence is and is not.

What Emotional Intelligence Is

My colleague Peter Salovey (now Provost of Yale University) and I introduced the theory of EI and a demonstration of how it might be measured in two 1990 journal articles. Emotional intelligence, as we described it, is the capacity to reason about emotions and emotional information, and of emotions to enhance thought.

People with high EI, we believed, could solve a variety of emotion-related problems accurately and quickly. High EI people, for example, can accurately perceive emotions in faces. Such individuals also know how to use emotional episodes in their lives to promote specific types of thinking. They know, for example, that sadness promotes analytical thought and so they may prefer to analyze things when they are in a sad mood (given the choice).

High EI people also understand the meanings that emotions convey: They know that angry people can be dangerous, that happiness means that someone wants to join with others, and that some sad people may prefer to be alone.

High EI people also know how to manage their own and others' emotions. They understand that, when happy, a person will be more likely to accept an invitation to a social gathering than when sad or afraid.

Does Emotional Intelligence Exist?

To test whether EI exists, my colleagues Peter Salovey, David Caruso, and I developed a number of ability measures of EI. Dr. Caruso had trained in intelligence research and had joined our group in 1995. Our team wanted to see if we could measure emotional intelligence abilities, if they improved with age (a characteristic of intelligence generally), and if EI abilities together formed a cohesive intelligence. If all of those conditions were met, EI arguably would be an intelligence.

One sort of test question we developed asked test-takers to identify the emotions expressed in a photograph of a face: for example, to know that sadness might be indicated by a frown. Another kind of question asked people how emotional reactions unfold. For example:

George was sad, and an hour later, he felt guilty. What happened in-between? (Choose one):

A. George accompanied a neighbor to a medical appointment to help out the neighbor.
B. George lacked the energy to call his mother, and missed calling her on her birthday.

High EI test-takers recognize that alternative B, the missed birthday phone call, would better account for George's change in mood from sadness to guilt.

The ability to answer such questions correctly seems to improve as children grow older. In addition, such questions cohere as a group: People who do well at some items tend to do well on others as well. For these reasons and others, EI is now believed to exist and is considered by many to be an established intelligence.

What Emotional Intelligence Is Not

Emotional intelligence is often claimed to be many things it is not: Journalistic accounts of EI often have equated it to other personality traits. Emotional intelligence, however, is not agreeableness. It is not optimism. It is not happiness. It is not calmness. It is not motivation. Such qualities, although important, have little to do with intelligence, little to do with emotions, and nearly nothing to do with actual emotional intelligence. It is especially unfortunate that even some trained psychologists have confused emotional intelligence with such personal qualities. My colleagues and I recommended in a recent American Psychologist article:

...groups of widely studied personality traits, including motives such as the need for achievement, self-related concepts such as self-control, emotional traits such as happiness, and social styles such as assertiveness should be called what they are, rather than being mixed together in haphazard-seeming assortments and named emotional intelligence (p. 514).

Is EI a Better Predictor of Success than IQ?

Journalistic accounts have propagated yet another misconception about EI: That it is the best predictor of success in life. EI is certainly not the best predictor of success in life — as was once suggested on the cover of TIME magazine in the United States. My colleagues and I never made such claims. Those claims arose, instead, from a flurry of journalistic accounts between 1995-1998. My colleagues and I carefully examined such journalistic claims and it became clear they were based on misunderstandings of psychological science. (A local newspaper covered my concerns about a popular book on the topic: The newspaper's 1995 headline read: "UNH Prof Who Pioneered Work on Emotional Intelligence Calls Claims in Book Outrageous." I penned quite a few more critiques thereafter (see here, for one).

That said, I believe EI is quite important: It expands our notions of intelligence, it helps us predict important life outcomes, and it can be used to help people find the right work and relationships for themselves.

In my next post, I will examine more about why EI matters.

This is the first of two special posts on Emotional Intelligence, written for Charaktery Magazine, a Polish-language publication. Charaktery's article just appeared and is cross-posted here for readers of the Personality Analyst Blog. (This week's regular Personality Analyst post, the latest installment on the Fact libel trial, was posted earlier and can be found here).

Corrections/edits: Minor copy edits and reformatting to the "Dear Reader" section +4 hours after posting.

Copyright (c) 2009 John D. Mayer


The two 1990 articles on emotional intelligence mentioned above were:

Mayer, J. D., DiPaolo, M. T., & Salovey, P. (1990). Perceiving affective content in ambiguous visual stimuli: A component of emotional intelligence. Journal of Personality Assessment, 54, 772-781.

Salovey, P. & Mayer, J.D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9(3), 185-211,

Two comprehensive and recent reviews of the EI area are:

Mayer, John D.; Salovey, Peter; Caruso, David R. (2008). Emotional intelligence: New ability or eclectic traits? American Psychologist, 63, 503-517.

Mayer, J. D., Barsade, S. G., & Roberts, R. D. (2008). Human abilities: Emotional intelligence. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 507-536.

The article, "UNH Prof..." was: Rose, D. (December 9, 1995). Exploring the emotional landscape. Fosters Daily Democrat, p. 3, 11.

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