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Emotional Intelligence

Can We Accurately Test Emotional Intelligence?

A closer look at the inherent biases of EQ tests.

Key points

  • Emotional intelligence refers to our ability to recognize, understand, and regulate our own and other people's emotions.
  • Experts disagree on the most appropriate answers to emotional intelligence tests, calling into question their effectiveness as a tool.
  • How people recognize and manage emotions depends on their cultural background, so EQ tests may be biased against groups oustide the "norm."
Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Emotional intelligence, or EQ, refers to your ability to recognize, understand, and regulate your own and other people's emotions and use this information to guide your thinking and actions (Salovey & Mayer, 1990):

  • Recognizing Emotions: The ability to recognize how you and those around you are feeling.
  • Understanding Emotions: The ability to understand emotions and how emotions transition from one stage to another.
  • Managing Emotions: The ability to manage emotions in yourself and others.
  • Using Emotions: The ability to use information about your own and other people's emotion to guide your thoughts and actions.

High EQ has been associated with psychological and physical health, stronger social and romantic relationships, more effective leadership, and greater work-related success and academic achievement. Given this, it's no surprise that many employers seek to screen job candidates and current employees for EQ. However, emotional intelligence tests have been subject to extensive criticism; one major problem with EQ tests is that the experts themselves often disagree about what the correct answers are.

The Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT)

To understand why experts disagree about EQ testing, let's consider the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT), one of the most commonly used tests. The MSCEIT measures aspects of emotional intelligence such as the ability to identify emotions in people's facial expressions and behaviors, the ability to use emotions to change other people's behavior, and the ability to understand which emotions certain actions can cause in others.

The 144 test questions on the MSCEIT vary in type and style. For example, in some, you need to select the emotions expressed by a face and their intensity. In others, you need to identify which emotions a scene is likely to elicit in people and their intensity. In still others, you read a vignette describing a scenario and then select the best answer to a question about the situation.

Here are some examples of the kinds of questions you may find on an MSCEIT test:

Sample Question 1

On a scale from 1-5 with 5 being the greatest amount, how much is each feeling on the list below expressed by this face?

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
  • Joy (1-5)
  • Delight (1-5)
  • Fear (1-5)
  • Anger (1-5)
  • Disgust (1-5)
  • Surprise (1-5)
  • Anticipation (1-5)
  • Curiosity (1-5)
  • Love (1-5)

You will typically receive a visual aid like the following when answering these questions:

No Joy Extreme Joy

Figure by Berit Brogaard
Source: Figure by Berit Brogaard

Sample Question 2

On a scale from 1-5 with 5 being the greatest amount, how much is each feeling on the list below likely to be elicited by this picture? Here, you need to analyze the depicted scene, shapes, and colors to answer correctly.

Fabian Wiktor
Source: Fabian Wiktor
  • Joy (1-5)
  • Delight (1-5)
  • Delight (1-5)
  • Fear (1-5)
  • Anger (1-5)
  • Surprise (1-5)
  • Anticipation (1-5)
  • Curiosity (1-5)
  • Love (1-5)

Here you need to analyze the content and colors to identify the correct emotions and the intensity of each emotion on a scale of 1 to 5.

Sample Question 3

Casey felt stressed out when she thought about all the work she needed to get done before Friday. When her boss asked her to complete yet another project by Friday, she felt _______.

Select the best answer:

  1. Vindicated
  2. Important
  3. Depressed
  4. Ashamed
  5. Overwhelmed
  6. Self-conscious
  7. Sympathetic
  8. Disappointed

Consensus Scoring and Test Biases

The correct answer to the third question is (5): Casey felt overwhelmed. However, it is much less obvious what the correct answers are in the first two cases. So, it is easy to understand why experts disagree about what the right answers are.

To solve this problem, psychologists sometimes use what is known as consensus scoring (Barchard, & Russell, 2006), in which a large group of subjects take the test, and the median of their answers is used for the scoring key. Consensus scoring tracks the most common answers among the test subjects. But while this method solves the problem of disagreement among experts, it raises problems of its own. For example, since it's based on people within a certain culture, it ignores a basic fact: which emotions we recognize and how we manage them depends on our cultural background.

The nature of emotions depends not only on biology but also on our embodied cultural and individual scripts (Barrett et al. 2010). Scripts are structures comprising social roles, common knowledge, and norms and guidelines that shape our perception, thinking, and action and guide our interaction with others.

Consider disgust. Disgust in response to open wounds, warts, snot, vomit, and blood can be found across most cultures. But the ubiquity of disgust is the exception, not the rule. In his classic book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin noted that what people find disgusting varies substantially from culture to culture. Recalling an incident on his expedition to South America, Darwin observed:

In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his finger some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac, and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty (2009 [1872]).

What we find disgusting can vary tremendously from culture to culture. And the same goes for other emotions. As the answer keys to EQ tests depend on a particular cultural norm, these tests are essentially biased against groups whose members fall outside of the "norm."


Barchard, K.A. & Russell, J.A. (2006). Bias in consensus scoring, with examples from ability emotional intelligence tests. Psicothema, 18, supl., 49-54.

Barrett, L. F., Mesquita, B., & Smith, E. R. (2010). The context principle. In B. Mesquita, L. F. Barrett, & E. R. Smith (Eds.), The mind in context. New York, NY: Guilford Press: 1–22.

Darwin, C. (2009 [1872]). The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, New York: D. Appleton.

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

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