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What Makes People Easy or Hard to Get Along With?

A study suggests strong links between personality and emotional intelligence.

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Think of someone you have a hard time dealing with. Maybe the person is easily offended, or has emotional outbursts, or is chronically late and inconsiderate. Now contrast that person with someone you know who is easy to get along with—perhaps outgoing, friendly, compassionate. What makes some people easy to get along with and others more difficult?

Two strands of research have approached this question from different angles. Personality research has focused on identifying the fundamental ingredients that drive our typical modes of thought, behavior, and feeling. The best known model is the "Big Five," which posits that personality is made up of the following factors:

  1. Emotional Stability: Not prone to negative emotional experiences—things like anxiety and depression. This trait is more often scored in the opposite direction (the scale is flipped, so high scores turn into low scores and vice versa) and called "neuroticism"; we'll think of it as emotional stability for a reason that will become apparent.
  2. Extraversion: Enjoys being with others, warm, outgoing.
  3. Openness: Values new experiences and differing points of view.
  4. Agreeableness: Cooperative, considerate, slow to take offense.
  5. Conscientiousness: Responsible, punctual, fulfills commitments.

These five traits are often considered to be unrelated, meaning that a high score on, say, extraversion doesn't tell us if the person, on average, will be agreeable. However, in practice these factors do tend to be significantly and positively correlated, meaning that a high score on any of them predicts a high scores on the others. For example, someone who is open to new experiences is probably going to be agreeable. (By reverse scoring neuroticism, all the correlations are positive.)

Thus many researchers have considered a "General Factor of Personality" (GFP) that takes into account all of these traits and their tendency to hang together. Perhaps there is a "good personality" that explains these subcategories and their positive correlations. (There is a vigorous and ongoing debate about how to interpret this correlation, with some researchers believing it reflects a meaningful "supertrait" of personality like the GFP, while others say it's driven by people's attempts to paint themselves in a positive light when they fill out self-report measures.)

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The second line of research in this area has focused on the idea of "emotional intelligence," which is considered to be a counterpart to cognitive intelligence. Someone who is high on emotional intelligence is good at reading others' emotions, understanding how another person feels, recognizing and expressing her/his own emotions, and controlling one's emotional expression. The idea was popularized in part through a bestselling book by Dr. Daniel Goleman.

Emotional intelligence (or EI) is broken down into:

  1. Trait EI: how people perceive their own emotional intelligence
  2. Ability EI: demonstrated skill in emotional intelligence (e.g., ability to read emotions through facial expressions)

A team of researchers from Europe and North America recently published a meta-analysis that brings together these two lines of research. They combined results from over 100 studies that included more than 36,000 participants to examine the associations between GFP and EI.

The research team used factor analysis, a statistical technique that can reveal how individual questions tend to cluster together. For example, factor analysis will show that participants' scores on items about emotional stability will tend to be similar.

These analyses showed a very high correlation between trait EI and the GFP of approximately r = .85. The researchers put this number in context by noting that the same Big Five trait (e.g., extraversion) measured with different instruments generally correlates between r = .40 to .80, and is believed to be measuring the same construct. The correlation between GFP and ability EI was significant though lower (approx. r = .28).

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van der Linden and his co-authors make several conclusions based on their analyses. First, the correlation between trait EI and GFP is so high as to suggest they may be largely the same thing. In other words, when someone has a lot of emotional intelligence we can expect that s/he is outgoing, emotionally stable, agreeable, and so forth. Similarly, a person high in the Big Five personality traits will generally show a lot of emotional intelligence.

They also suggest that it's premature to make meaningful interpretations of the fact that GFP correlated more highly with trait than ability EI.

Interestingly, the researchers suggest that high EI/GFP should be interpreted as high "social effectiveness," rather than simply a "good personality." After all, as they note, social effectiveness "can, in principle, be used for ethical (e.g., maintaining friendships and working in teams) or unethical (e.g., deceiving and corrupting others) causes."

While much work remains to be done, this meta-analysis represents a significant development in our understanding of personality, emotional intelligence, and their associations.

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van der Linden, D. Pekaar, K. A., Bakker, A. B., Schermer, J. A., Vernon, P. A., Dunkel, C. S., & Petrides, K. V. (2016). Overlap between the general factor of personality and emotional Intelligence: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, Nov 14.

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