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Emotional Intelligence

What Do We Really Know About Emotional Intelligence?

New research shows that people are pretty good at faking their EQ scores.

Key points

  • Emotional intelligence is a popular concept, shown in prior research to predict various life skills.
  • A new study shows the extent to which people will fake a high EQ when the stakes are high.
  • By being brutally honest, we can more clearly identify where there’s room for growth.

You are almost certainly familiar with the idea of emotional intelligence, also called “EQ” (like “IQ”), particularly the claims that it is a harbinger of life success. Developed as an alternative to traditional IQ scores, EQ is intended to reflect how well people know themselves, know others, and are able to regulate their emotions, particularly when placed under stress.

If you’re high in EQ, so the claims go, you’ll succeed in life, and your EQ score will matter more than whatever your “book smarts” may be. Examples abound of people who have those book smarts and fail miserably in the real world and the converse, those who didn’t do well at all in school but are massive successes.

With all of the claims of EQ’s value, it might surprise you to know that psychology may actually not know all that much about the very essence of EQ. The only way to find out how much EQ people have is to give them a test. That test, most likely, is based on self-report. All self-report measures are subject to faking, as test-takers try to present as favorable an image as possible to researchers, if not themselves. Couldn’t this be true of EQ?

The Massive Self-Report Bias in Emotional Intelligence

According to University of Sydney’s Sarah A. Walker and Carolyn MacCann (2024), emotional intelligence—or what they refer to as “EI”—“is widely used in selection processes for education and employment.” But there is also a slight hint emerging from prior studies that test-takers can “fake good” on self-reports of EI, a likelihood even more probable when an EI test score will have a bearing on a person’s life.

It turns out that the “fake good” problem isn’t true only for self-report. Asking someone else to report on a person’s EI, or what’s called an “informant” rating, could also produce biased scores. This becomes very problematic if a company bases its hiring decisions on these supposedly objective reports.

Who would such an informant be, and why would they distort the truth? It’s possible that someone seeking a position for employment or acceptance into an educational program would ask a former supervisor or educator to provide this form of personal reference. The situation would be even worse if the informant is a family member or friend. These individuals, wanting to help, are willing to gloss over some of the rougher edges of the applicant’s personality.

Oddly enough, it’s possible that informants are actually less truthful than test-takers themselves. Called “friendship bias” or “halo effect,” this type of faking was already demonstrated in prior research on the so-called Dark Triad traits as well as all of the Five Factor traits. When staring at a personality test, an individual may be willing to dig down deep and reveal some unpleasant truths, particularly if there are no ramifications of doing so. Feelings of loyalty or affection may cause the rose-colored glasses to come out for an informant.

Are Informants Just as Bad?

One way that researchers estimate self-report bias is by asking people to take a questionnaire measure of EI under the condition of total honesty versus the condition of faking good. The U. Sydney researchers decided to take the same approach to measuring informant bias with their EI measure. Their 232 online participants (18–72 years old, average 26 years) and 151 students (average age 20 years) completed the 30-item Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire (TEIQue-SF) under one of the four combinations of self/informant, fake good/honest.

You can put yourself in the place of the participants by rating yourself or another person, honestly or by faking good on these items (using a 1-7 agree-disagree scale). The informant questions should be worded in terms of the person you’re rating:

  • Emotionality: Expressing my emotions with words is not a problem for me.
  • Sociability: I can deal effectively with people.
  • Self-control: I’m usually able to control my emotions when I want to.
  • Well-being: I feel that I have a number of good qualities.

The specific instructions participants received for the fake good conditions presented the scenario in which the ratings would be used for a hypothetical job selection process.

Sadly, the findings confirmed the prediction that the job selection instructions prompted greater faking than the being honest condition, both for self and informants. As the authors concluded: “The magnitude of faking on EI was substantial and consistent with past EI faking studies.” Informants faked just as much as did people completing the questionnaire with reference to themselves. The huge companies using EI assessments based on informant ratings, such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Australian Government Defence Force, and the U.S. Air Force, are all in trouble, according to the authors.

The upshot of all of this is not, according to the authors, that all EI questionnaire measures (or personality measures, for that matter) should be scrapped. Instead, assessments of emotional intelligence when the stakes are high should be conducted using multimethod approaches. One such method could be what’s called experience sampling, in which people complete brief ratings several times throughout the day for multiday periods. Another is to provide people with scenario-based tests. It’s one thing to say, “I can deal effectively with people” and another to decide on which of several strategies would work best in helping a distraught co-worker in a hypothetical interpersonal problem.

Can We Ever Trust EQ Ratings Again?

If you’re in an official position in which an EQ rating will make a difference in whom you decide to bring on board, these findings are indeed unsettling. However, if there are no particular consequences associated with the way you judge EQ in others, or yourself, the findings suggest that it’s important to try to maintain your objectivity. There’s also nothing wrong with having an EQ that is not completely up to snuff. The very premise of EQ is based on the assumption that some people have this as a quality and some people do not. You gain nothing by pretending that you easily key into other people’s emotions when, in fact, you just cannot read the room all that well.

It’s also easier to grow in a quality when you’re honest about where you, or another person, stand on it. There is no room for improvement if you’re giving yourself, or someone else, an exaggeratedly high rating.

To sum up, the U. Sydney findings shed a very harsh light on EQ’s possible flaws both as a self-assessment and as a screening tool. Finding out who has EQ and who has some work to do will ultimately provide a more fulfilling pathway to developing this desirable personal strength.


Walker, S. A., & MacCann, C. (2024). Faking good on self-reports versus informant-reports of emotional intelligence. Assessment, 31(5), 1011–1019. doi:10.1177/10731911231203960

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