What Is... Psychology Series

What Is… Emotional Intelligence

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s term is emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence involves the ability to recognize emotions in both the self and others, and then make decisions that take into account those emotions.

The first noted use of the term dates back to 1964.  It was used by a number of authors in the 1980’s, and then became popular in 1995 with the publication of the best-selling book Emotional Intelligence – Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

Models of emotional intelligence

Different models of emotional intelligence characterize it as an innate trait, a learned ability, or a blend of both. There are various psychometric tests that measure different things based on the model they’re associated with.

The ability-based model involves four skill areas: perceiving, using, understanding, and managing emotions. 

The trait-based approach considers emotional intelligence to be essentially emotional self-efficacy, i.e. one’s perception of their own emotional abilities.  This approach treats emotional intelligence as part of one’s personality rather than a learned ability. 

Daniel Goleman’s mixed model blends abilities and traits, and includes five constructs: self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills, empathy, and motivation. 

Is EQ a valid construct?

In psychological research, constructs are ways of describing human experience and behaviour. Research then evaluates constructs to see if they match up with what’s actually going on. A validated construct is clearly defined, specific, and measurable, and it can be clearly differentiated from other related constructs.

Some researcher have raised concerns about the validity of emotional intelligence as a construct and the psychometric tests that have been associated with. The idea that there is a type of intelligence related to emotions sounds reasonable, but there are a number of reasons why it might not fit.  A question that jumps out at me right away is whether emotional intelligence is one thing.  It may actually involve a number of different phenomena that are related but distinct. At this point, there doesn’t appear to be a widely accepted model of emotionally intelligence.

Pop culture

However, the concepthas certainly picked up steam in popular culture, particularly when it comes to the business world.  Mark Manson, the author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, writes in a blog post that emotional intelligence is skill-based, and “developing emotional intelligence comes down to not being a fucknut.”

There are various EQ tests floating around on the internet that haven’t been validated by research.  They might talk about an EQ score but, unlike IQ, there isn’t a single authoritative test, and an EQ number isn’t going to give you a score that’s standardized in the way an IQ score is.  There’s probably one on Facebook that Russian hackers use to steal people’s information, so keep an eye out for that.  Here’s one from the Institute of Health and Human Potential that you can try, although don’t take it too seriously: https://www.ihhp.com/free-eq-quiz/

There’s also an interesting quiz on the website of Greater Good Magazine out of UC Berkeley.  It takes a very different approach than other tests; it presents photos of people’s facial expressions, and then you pick the correct expression description out of the multiple-choice answers.  After each question, it points out specific areas on the face that represent the actual emotion displayed.  It’s here: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/quizzes/ei_quiz


Overall, it sounds like an interesting example of a concept from the field of psychology that has exploded into pop psychology without waiting to see if there is actually a strong grounding for it.  The take-home message, though, is that emotional intelligence, as measured by any number of different kinds of tests, isn’t as clearly an actual thing as cognitive intellectual capacity, as measured by IQ.

Source: Wikipedia

Psychology resources: What is... Insights into Psychology series and Psychological Tests collection

The What Is… Insights Into Psychology series directory contains all of the terms that have been covered in the series thus far.

You can also find a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests here.

31 thoughts on “What Is… Emotional Intelligence”

  1. Very informative, and I greatly appreciate your take on it. ‘Cause I’ve taken online EQ tests, and they always tell me I have weak emotional intelligence, which naturally makes me feel bad about myself. I’ve always wondered how legit those tests are. But at the heart of the matter, if I have weak emotional intelligence, I’d blame my chaotic, unpredictable, sometimes horrific upbringing. Still, though, as a lover of psychology, I’d like to think I have high emotional intelligence. But honestly? I don’t think I do.

    I’m not an empath, but I do feel others’ energy. I feel it as “essence of who they are,” rather than feeling it as the person’s current emotion.

    I do think I’m great at self-awareness, and pretty good at self-regulation of bad moods, etc. (Inasmuch as I can be.) But I’m glad you delineated how there’s not a solid way of testing for it, much less for defining it. Great blog post!

    1. Thank you! Yes, it seems like too broad a construct to be all that useful . And if an EQ test is telling you that you have a low score without telling you what exactly it interprets you as not being strong at, then it’s probably not a very good test to begin with.

  2. While my husband has an extraordinarily high IQ his EQ is probably somewhere in the negative numbers. We’ve come to the conclusion that he probably falls into the Aspergers Spectrum…

    1. I am autistic and I have seen some studies that hypothesize that at least some on the spectrum actually are almost too empathic, where they pick up on too much emotion and it overwhelms them, leading to shutdown. In my own case, I feel that is often more the truth of what happens. Among autistics in general they seem to be either hypo-sensitive or hyper-sensitive to everything. I fall on the hyper end and am overly sensitive to almost everything – emotions, physical stimuli, sensory information, etc. I have known aspies more on the hypo side though that almost have to seek out strong feelings because not much registers with them.

      1. There’s also a difference between ‘feeling’ and ‘understanding.’ I do get upset by seeing other people upset, sad books and films, hearing children crying etc., but I’m not great at understanding what other people are feeling in detail, particularly unaided.

        1. Very true. I assume I can imagine what others are feeling somewhat if I have been through something similar, but if they go through something I am totally unfamiliar with, it is much harder, but I would think that would be true to an extent even for NTs.

  3. This an awesome blog. EQ is something I have been trying to work on, but can’t fully figure out. Sometimes I allow my mental state to take me on a ride, before I even stop to consider the consequences.

    I’m not big on New year’s resolutions, but it’s fair to say EQ is on top of the list. I may definitely check out those tests later!

  4. For me, EQ, has to do with adaptation. I think you can be very smarts in intelligence but to be happy you’ll need some empathy and flexibility. Maybe that is not what EQ is but social skills, expressing yourself, tempering your emotions and the ability to self soothe (and probably many other things) are maybe as important as economic, business or scientific insight.

  5. I’m better than average according to that test. I find it interesting that I got almost all the negative emotions correct (anger, pain, sadness, shame), but hardly any of the positive ones (love, happiness, etc.).

  6. I disagree with the guy who said, “developing emotional intelligence comes down to not being a [expletive deleted].” I try to be a nice person, but I know I’m going to struggle with EQ stuff because of autism. The test you wrote about where people have to match faces to emotions is exactly the sort of thing where high functioning autistic people with high IQs would score low EQs, but that doesn’t make us bad people! I struggle to understand my own emotions let alone other people’s.

    1. Mark Manson in general seems to be a bit of a [insert expletive here] himself. I suspect difficulty interpreting emotional expression makes people more hesitant, whereas the people who just don’t care are barging in and making a mess of things.

  7. This seems like something I lack doing. I can make decisions based on my emotions easily without thinking first. I do this with speaking too. I don’t see how it could be a skill. It seems like people either do it or they don’t

  8. I always love seeing emotional intelligence covered. We focus so much on intelligence and tend to forget the disconnect between emotional and regular intelligence. I’m really lucky I have fair a bit of both, otherwise the regular intelligence can get you into trouble socially!

  9. Great post Ashley! I was thinking of tackling it but there is no way I could do it like you have. I think it comes down to how you react in different situations. I consider myself someone who can relate to other’s pains. I also relate to a person’s joy(i.e. the birth of a new baby)

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