Why Emotional Intelligence Matters
Try this thought experiment to understand why emotional intelligence counts.
Posted March 17, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Our emotion systems, as awkward as they may sometimes be, evolved because they helped our ancestors adapt, survive, and reproduce.
- Our understanding of what's now known as emotional intelligence is based on research by Darwin, Paul Ekman, John Mayer, and Peter Salovey that has attracted extraordinary interest both in academia and among the general public.
- Our ability to read other people's emotional states, and to communicate our own to others, remain essential, and a deficit of those skills tends to cause serious social, romantic, and professional problems.
Here's a simple thought experiment:
Situation A: Think of the person in your world whom you would deem as extremely poor at understanding the emotional states of others. This person might be in a room surrounded by others who are stressed about an impending deadline, for instance, and might just not get it. Or this person might see someone inside a solemn cathedral at a funeral and extend a joyous hello while everyone is obviously grieving.
Now consider two simple questions:
- Do you think that this person's inability to accurately detect others' emotional states might make for difficulties in friendships?
- Do you think that this person's inability to accurately detect others' emotional states might make for difficulties in obtaining and maintaining a relationship with a solid romantic partner?
Situation B: Think of the person in your world whom you would deem as extremely poor at expressing their emotional states to others. This person might be furious with a co-worker who slighted them, but might have a complete inability to express anger or upset. Or this person might be thrilled with a birthday present that a friend gave to them, but may have zero capacity to show happiness or gratitude in the moment.
Now consider two simple questions:
- Do you think that this person's inability to effectively express their emotional states might make for difficulties in friendships?
- Do you think that this person's inability to effectively express their emotional states might make for difficulties in obtaining and maintaining a relationship with a solid romantic partner?
If you're like most students whom I've surveyed with these questions, you quickly answer "yes" to each of these four questions. When we think of someone who doesn't get how others feel or see the world, we often think of someone who is, as my college-aged daughter might put it, annoying. If someone is not emotionally on the same page with others around them, that makes all kinds of communications and interactions difficult. And it nearly has to have adverse implications for friendships. After all, would you rather have a good friend who understands your feelings or one who has no clue or concern for your inner emotional world? And, of course, all of this is essentially double-downed when we think about a long-term romantic partner. Would you rather have a spouse who feels and understands your emotional states or one who is fully clueless regarding how you feel? The answer is kind of obvious.
The same goes for the issue of emotional expressivity. It's hard to be friends with someone who is really not very effective at expressing their emotions. Such stoicism often makes people difficult to read, which can create a broad array of interpersonal problems. And, again, this issue is magnified in the confines of intimate, romantic relationships.
Emotional Intelligence in Evolutionary Context
In some of my classes, I use this activity as a starting point for getting students to see how psychological processes can be understood as products of natural selection. These basic components of emotional intelligence—the ability to detect emotions and the ability to express emotions (see Geher, 2004)—are foundational features of our social and emotional worlds.
It is not coincidental that Darwin wrote a whole book about the evolutionary origins of emotions (The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872). He realized early on that our emotion systems are the way they are, even if they can create various difficulties in one's life, because they helped solve adaptive problems for our ancestors. Being able to effectively express and decode emotions has clear implications for survival and reproduction.
Deficits in emotional processing and expressivity lead to problems in both romantic and platonic relationships. And from an evolutionary perspective, this fact points clearly to the adaptive value of strong emotional processing skills (or emotional intelligence).
Some of the earliest and most highly cited research on the evolutionary origins of human psychology, in fact, comes from the renowned behavioral scientist Paul Ekman (see Ekman & Friesen, 1986). In his classic work, Ekman documented strong evidence suggesting that the ability to detect basic emotional expressions is the result of natural selection and is foundational to the human experience.
Deficits in abilities related to emotional intelligence provide hurdles to people today as they likely provided hurdles to people across the evolutionary history of our species.
Bottom Line: Since the first paper was published on the topic of emotional intelligence in 1990 (by Peter Salovey and John Mayer), the topic has attracted an extraordinary amount of interest among academics, practitioners, and the general public. One reason for the immense interest in emotional intelligence pertains to how deeply it connects with our evolved psychology. The abilities that underlie emotional intelligence, including the two broad categories pertaining to the ability to detect emotion in others and the ability to effectively express emotions to others, had profound implications for survival and reproduction across the human evolutionary experience. And I'd say that such deficits probably still have such adverse consequences in the lives of people today.
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Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London, UK: John Murray.
Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1986). A new pan-cultural facial expression of emotion. Motivation and Emotion, 10, 159-168.
Geher, G. (Ed., 2004). Measuring Emotional Intelligence: Common Ground and Controversy. New York: Nova Science Publishing.