What Is… Emotional Intelligence

Abilities involved in emotional intelligence, including perceiving emotions accurately and regulating emotions

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

Emotional intelligence (EI) sounds like something that’s obviously good, useful, and important, and while that might be true when you consider it as a nebulous concept, when you dig a little bit and narrow it down, it’s not quite as cut and dried as that.

And while that nebulous concept of EI may seem like it would include social functioning ability, social intelligence (defined by Crowne as “the ability to interact effectively with others”) is its own thing. Some researchers see EI as a subset of social intelligence, while others have different views on the relationship between the two.

Salovey and Mayer’s model

In 1990, psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer defined emotional intelligence as encompassing four areas of competency:

  • the ability to perceive, evaluate and express emotions accurately
  • the ability to access emotions to support cognition
  • the ability to understand emotional messages and to make use of emotional information
  • the ability to regulate emotions to promote well-being

These weren’t the first researchers to mention EI, but they were the first to lay out a clear definition.

Daniel Goleman’s model

The concept of EI was introduced to the general public though psychologist Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ (you can check out the book on Goodreads here). Goleman went on to develop a four-quadrant model that consisted of:

  • Self-awareness: emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment, and self-confidence
  • Social awareness: empathy, organizational awareness, service
  • Self-management: emotional self-control, transparency, adaptability, initiative, optimisim
  • Relationship management: influence, inspirational leadership, developing others, change catalyst, conflict management, collaboration

Goleman’s model looks rather business-ish, and if you do a Google search for emotional intelligence, a lot of the results are business-oriented, focusing on leadership and workplaces. It looks like there’s quite a lucrative industry teaching people, and in particular, people in organizations, how to be more emotionally intelligent in order to improve performance.

There are also a lot of other people talking about EI, but they don’t seem to all be talking about the same thing.

Emotional intelligence isn’t always a good thing

Have you ever listened to a powerful speaker who seemed to be able to play listeners’ emotions like a violin? That’s all well and good if we’re talking about someone inspirational like Martin Luther King, Jr., who got people believing in his dream of a better future. An article in The Atlantic points out that it’s not so good if we’re talking about tyrants like Adolf Hitler who are able to convince the masses to eagerly go along with the horrors they want to inflict.

Even if we take it down a few notches from the evil level of Hitler, skilled manipulators are good at managing their own emotions and playing with the emotions of others. One study showed that bullies had greater emotion understanding than non-bullies, and I think that highlights the fact that understanding and managing emotions is a different thing from empathy and compassion. Coté and colleagues suggested that it’s personality traits that determine whether emotion regulation goes in a prosocial or antisocial direction.

While EI can improve performance in some types of jobs, such as sales or counselling, it’s not such a good thing for jobs with lower emotional demands. Mechanics, scientists, and accountants with high EI have actually been found to have lower job performance than those with low EI.

Testing EI/EQ

Different emotional intelligence tests evaluate different things. Trait EI refers to the theoretical understanding of emotions, whereas ability EI refers to behaviours in situations where emotions are relevant. Then there are mixed EI tests, which throw personality traits into the mix as well. Some mixed EI tests involve “360 degree” assessments, which combine self-report with feedback from supervisors, colleagues, and subordinates. Some research has shown that trait and mixed EI tests are better predictors of job satisfaction, organization commitment, and job performance than ability EI tests.

A major flaw with a lot of tests that measure emotional intelligence is that they rely on self-reports rather than any sort of external evaluation of performance. You may think that you’re great at reading other people’s emotions and reacting appropriately, but that doesn’t necessarily have much bearing on whether you actually are good at those things.

Examples of EI/EIQ tests

The Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT), which isn’t freely available, is an ability-based test that provides a total emotional intelligence quotient (EIQ) score , which is broken down into two area scores. Experiential EIQ encompasses recognizing emotions and determining how they interact with thoughts, and strategic EIQ relates to understanding the meaning of emotions, recognizing their implications for relationships, and regulating emotions. The MSCEIT also gives scores for four branches of emotional intelligence: perceiving, using, understanding, and managing emotions.

The Schutte Self Report Emotional Intelligence Test (SSEIT) is a trait-based EI test. The University of Washington has a copy of the questions, but it doesn’t say anything about what the results mean. An example of the problem with self-report questions is “I know what other people are feeling just by looking at them.” You might think you do, but you could very easily be wrong.

The Institute for Health and Human Potential has a free EQ quiz, although it doesn’t give you a score; it just tells you if your emotional intelligence is good or not.

Greater Good Magazine has an EI test that measures how well you’re able to recognize emotions from people’s facial expressions.

Is emotional intelligence a useful construct?

An article in the New Yorker described EI as conceptualized by Daniel Goleman as “a self-help doctrine deeply indebted to the moralizing ideology of neoliberalism.” (It’s worth clarifying that when we’re talking neoliberalism, we’re talking Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, not Bernie Sanders.) The author, Merve Emre, also wrote, “For all its righteous proclamations about what ails the modern world, its goals are straightforwardly conservative: to encourage people to stay in school, to secure stable employment, to bind themselves to their work, to have families and keep them intact, and to raise their children to repeat this same cycle of productive activity.” Emre seems to swing pretty hard to the left, but it’s an interesting take on Goleman’s concept.

In terms of academic criticism, the main argument against EI, or at least the way some people conceptualize EI, is that it just repackages things that are already captured in the five-factor model of personality.

I always get a bit suspicious when people start making a lot of money off of psychological concepts. It seems to me as though emotional intelligence has one foot in actual psychology territory and one foot firmly in pop psychology territory. So while managing emotions and interacting effectively with other people are important to function well in the world, EQ isn’t as solidly a single thing as IQ is.

What are your thought on the usefulness of the concept of emotional intelligence?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

37 thoughts on “What Is… Emotional Intelligence”

  1. Well, thank you Ashley Leia for your post. It opened my eyes to the depth of Emotional Intelligence far more than my reading on this topic had taught me in the past..
    I read and heard a fair bit on EI in the 80s and 90s; but never from this well- rounded perspective. Back then It was only presented (touted) as personal development “mantra.”
    Great information and as always very well presented. Thank you!

  2. I remember reading a book on EQ, 20+ years ago. Back then, I thought I had the world figured out, to include my own EQ.

    Come to find out, there was so much to learn and nobody has it all figured out!

    I think the concept is good from a theoretical perspective, and I agree, EQ seems to have one foot in pop psych, which is not good.

    If you want to make something legit, stay completely away from pop psych!

  3. I have very high emotional intelligence, and I sometimes feel like it’s a burden. It can be quite draining.
    My husband is the opposite, it’s something he has to work really hard at, but when he does something that shows how much he cares, it always means so much more.
    It’s interesting seeing how both sides of the coin operate

  4. I think it’s BS. I get high EQ on tests because of my sense of humor, willingness to admit mistakes, and consideration of other POV’s, but what good has it done me? Yes, I have a great relationship with my girls, but that’s it. I never could figure out how to navigate other relationships that well, and I ended up with no romantic partner, even though I wanted one for a long time 😞

  5. When I think of emotional intelligence, I think of Jim Jones, David Koresh, people like that. People that know how to play other people to do what they want. I’ve never considered it through the lens of someone like MLK but now I’m wondering why I haven’t. It all comes down to the difference between help and hurt. Some people can use their talents to help, others to hurt.

  6. Interesting post, Ashley. I would have thought Emotional Intelligence was a good thing, signifying that you were aware of and had the ability to handle your own emotions and make allowances for the emotions of others.
    Understanding emotions only to use them as manipulation puts a whole other spin on things…

  7. I’ve heard about EQ and EI and I always thought I am very bad on both. I find it hard to truly invest in friendships and maintaining them. I often feel like I bother others if I text them/reach out and I’m always very hesitant to do so. So I lost some people I thought of as friends as they didn’t find me considered enough. Now I know I’m autistic, it’s easier to explain some of my traits. I don’t want to use it as an excuse but I understand it may sometimes feel like that to others.
    Thanks for this post. 😊 I found it very interesting. Have a lovely day 🌸.

      1. Yes having a better understanding not always makes it easier but then, it does help to make more sense. 😊
        Thank you! I had a good day, now it’s almost bed time, as I go to bed early and get up early as well. 😊
        Have a fabulous weekend ☀ 🌸 🤗

  8. I had a business partner who exhibited narcissistic tendencies and I would rate as having a very high EQ. As you point out so well in this post, EQ isn’t always a good thing! Very interesting post, Ashley!

  9. My daughter interviewed for an internal promotion a couple of years ago at a job she didn’t like much anyway. In the interview, someone asked her opinion or definition of emotional intelligence. I’m not sure where I’m going with this story, but it seemed like a jab. She moved on not long after. She’s happier now.

  10. Hahahaha, I really really dislike pop psych in the workplace and “EQ” is one example.

    I was always disappointed when I had to pick a “personal development” training course because they were dogshit. I routinely had trainers be racist, spew mental illness stigma, while claiming to teach “psychology” and EQ.

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