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.

The ability-based model includes four areas of skill: perceiving, using, understanding, and managing emotions.  The  Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) is a psychometric test associated with the ability-based model, although concerns have been raised about its validity.

Daniel Goleman’s mixed model includes five constructs: self-awareness, self-regulation, social skill, empathy, and motivation.  A couple of different psychometric tests are based on this model.

The trait-based approach considers emotional intelligence to be essentially emotional self-efficacy, i.e. their perception of their abilities.  This is viewed as part of one’s personality rather than a learned ability.  The Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire (TEIQue) is a psychometric test associated with this model.

Is it a valid construct?

Other researchers have raised concerns about the emotional intelligence constructs and the associated psychometric tests.  That’s actually one of the interesting parts of psychology – researchers develop constructs to try to capture a phenomenon so that it can be explored further.  However, those constructs don’t always fit what’s actually going on, even if on the surface they appear to be correct.

The idea of 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 happen to intersect.

Pop culture

However, it’s a concept that’s 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 that’s universally agreed upon.  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 are indicative of 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

You can find a directory of the terms covered in the what is… series here.

There’s also a collection of psychological tests here.

29 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!

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