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Emotional Intelligence

The Evolutionary Roots of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence was critical for the survival of our ancestors.

Key points

  • Emotional intelligence can be understood as strongly rooted in our evolutionary history.
  • In 1872, Darwin himself made the case that the human emotion system has deep evolutionary roots.
  • A new paper provides a framework for understanding emotional intelligence within an evolutionary framework.
  • Understanding evolutionary principles can advance our understanding of emotional intelligence.
Source: sgh-Fotographie/Pixabay

So picture this: You have an acquaintance who is emotionally clueless. He never seems to get the joke when he is in a group while everyone else is laughing together. He never seems to get the hint when someone is perturbed with him for one reason or another. He often blurts out things that make others cringe and feel emotionally uncomfortable—and he seems to have no idea when this is happening.

Let's go back thousands of generations. Now imagine our socially and emotionally inept acquaintance living in a tight-knit group of hunter-gatherers. Unfortunately, life is not always great for him. He is rarely asked to join on hunts as he is seen more as a burden than as a benefit by his fellow hunters. He develops few social connections with others in the clan, as people just have a hard time getting along with him. And his efforts to secure romance consistently fall flat.

In a sense, we can think of this guy as having relatively low emotional intelligence (Salovey & Mayer, 1990). Emotional intelligence is essentially the set of emotion-based skills that help people navigate life. These skills include both (a) the capacity to effectively read and understand emotions of others as well as (b) the capacity to effectively elicit emotions in others in social interactions and communications.

While we can easily understand emotional intelligence in Darwinian terms—in other words, we can see emotional intelligence as an important psychological feature that helped our ancestors to survive and reproduce—little work has explicitly utilized an evolutionary framework to understand emotional intelligence. This fact is problematic partly because (a) an evolutionary framework has famously been shown to shed novel light on all kinds of psychological processes (see Geher & Wedberg, 2022) and (b) Darwin himself, with his book The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (1872), made a strong case that the human emotion system is rooted deeply in our evolutionary history.

With all this said, I'm delighted to report that members of my research team, the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab, have recently published an article that provides a roadmap for taking an evolutionary approach to the all-important construct of emotional intelligence (Eisenberg, Lombard, & Geher, 2024). In our article titled Assessing the Construct Validity of Emotional Intelligence Using Evolutionary Psychology (published recently in Personality and Individual Differences), we present something of a roadmap for advancing our understanding of emotional intelligence by placing this concept within an evolutionary framework.

An Evolutionarily Informed Emotional Intelligence

The evolutionary perspective in psychology essentially examines psychological processes in terms of how and why these processes came to characterize humans in the first place. An evolutionary psychologist looks at some psychological feature and begins by asking this: What benefit, in terms of survival and/or reproduction, would this feature have served for human ancestors? In a sense, this question is asking how such-and-such psychological feature would have been naturally selected during our evolutionary history.

In doing research for our article, we quickly realized that emotional intelligence is exactly the kind of psychological attribute that has clear adaptive value. Being able to effectively read and elicit emotions in others has all kinds of social and, ultimately, lifelong benefits to individuals who are skilled in this domain. People who are high in emotional intelligence have been found to show increased success in various areas in life (see Geher, 2004). From an evolutionary perspective, we can ask questions as to how these same emotion-based skills would have been beneficial for humans not just in modern, industrial contexts, but also across the broader human evolutionary experience.

In thinking about things this way, we make the case that our understanding of emotional intelligence, as seen in an evolutionary perspective, can improve by asking adaptationist questions. In other words, this field could benefit from research addressing how emotion-based skills relate to evolutionarily relevant outcomes.

Toward this end, we suggest that researchers consider assessing how well measures of emotional intelligence predict such evolutionarily relevant outcomes as effective cooperation, social interactions, and mating outcomes. To the extent that emotional intelligence is an important adaptation in a highly social species like ours, we would expect high emotional intelligence to correspond to intuitive abilities when it comes to cooperating with others. Those who are high in emotional intelligence should show a keen understanding of how to create positive bonds in social contexts that help to promote effective teamwork and cooperation.

We also propose that emotional intelligence should bear on effective social interactions in general. People who are high in emotional intelligence should find it relatively easy to make and to maintain friendships. They should rarely find themselves ostracized from groups. And we predict that they would, due to the adaptive benefits of emotional intelligence, hold relatively high social status—which can lead to all kinds of evolutionarily relevant outcomes.

Finally, we propose that emotional intelligence should be extremely important when it comes to the highly evolutionarily relevant domain of mating. Attracting mates, forming effective close relationships, expressing love when appropriate to do so, etc., should all correspond to high levels of emotional intelligence. And to the extent that this is true, we would expect those who are high in emotional intelligence to form more successful intimate relationships relative to their less emotionally intelligent counterparts.

Bottom Line

Emotional intelligence is one of the most-studied and most-important concepts in all of psychology. The field of evolutionary psychology examines important psychological features largely by asking how these features would have had adaptive benefits in terms of survival and reproduction for our ancestors during the bulk of evolutionary history.

Darwin himself (1872) made the case that the human emotion system is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. Maybe it is about time for emotional intelligence in modern psychological science to be examined within the evolutionary framework that Darwin so brilliantly laid out more than a century ago.

If we want to advance our understanding of human emotional intelligence, taking an evolutionary approach would be wise. No doubt, our understanding of the broader human experience will move forward as a result.


Note: I want to thank my co-authors of the article summarized here, Ethan Eisenberg and Julia Lombard, for their thoughtful, diligent, and above-and-beyond work that paved the way for this post.


Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London, UK: John Murray.

Eisenberg, E., Lombard, J., & Geher, G. (2024). Assessing the construct validity of emotional intelligence using evolutionary psychology. Personality and Individual Differences. Volume 227.

Geher, G. (Ed., 2004). Measuring Emotional Intelligence: Common Ground and Controversy. New York: Nova Science Publishing.

Geher, G. & Wedberg, N. (2022). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

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