What separates humans from other animals is the richness and depth of our emotions. From an early age, we learn how to express and control our own emotions, as well as how to understand, interpret and respond to the emotions of others. This is what experts refer to as emotional intelligence, or EQ.
Psychologists John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey introduced the concept of emotional intelligence in the early 1990s. In the years since, EQ has been declared as the secret key to success. An entire industry grew up around it, giving rise to workshops, self-help books and school programmes. But as the theory increased in popularity, it also became widely misinterpreted.
So what exactly is emotional intelligence? Let’s take a closer look.
What is emotional intelligence?
In their debut article on the subject, Drs. Salovey and Mayer defined emotional intelligence as:
…the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.
Salovey and Mayer went on further to establish a model that identified the four different factors of emotional intelligence: emotional perception, emotional reasoning, emotional understanding and emotional management. They break down as follows:
- Perceiving emotions: In order to understand emotions, we must perceive them accurately. This might involve interpreting nonverbal signals, such as body language and facial expressions.
- Reasoning with emotions: Emotions help us prioritise what we take notice of and react to. We respond emotionally to things that capture our attention.
- Understanding emotions: The emotions that we identify in others can carry a wide variety of meanings. When someone is expressing an emotion, the observer must interpret the cause of that emotion and what it might mean.
- Managing emotions: The ability to properly manage our emotions essential to emotional intelligence. Regulating and responding appropriately to our own emotions, as well as responding to the emotions of others, is a key aspect of emotional management.
According to the psychologists, the four branches of their model are “arranged from more basic psychological processes to higher, more psychologically integrated processes. For example, the lowest level branch concerns the (relatively) simple abilities of perceiving and expressing emotion. In contrast, the highest level branch concerns the conscious, reflective regulation of emotion.”
What it is not
In the years since its introduction, emotional intelligence has been claimed to be many things that it isn’t. Journalists and self-help gurus often associate it with personality traits, which is simply inaccurate. In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Mayer spoke to these erroneous characterisations, saying:
Emotional intelligence, however, is not agreeableness. It is not optimism. It is not happiness, it is not calmness, it is not motivation. Such qualities, although important, have little to do with intelligence, little to do with emotions, and nearly nothing to do with actual emotional intelligence. It is especially unfortunate that even some trained psychologists have confused emotional intelligence with such personal qualities.
What are the benefits of EQ?
Seeing that emotional intelligence has such a large-scale effect on how we manage behaviour, navigate social complexities and make personal decisions, possessing a high EQ provides a wealth of benefits.
People with high emotional intelligence are often happier, more optimistic and adaptable, and less impulsive. They have stronger relationships and fit in well with multiple groups of people. They are adept at managing stress and better at understanding their own psychological state, which can be helpful if they suffer from a mental illness.
High emotional intelligence also has a substantial impact on career success. Almost all jobs involve dealing with people, and people with higher EQ are more enjoyable to work with. In fact, 71 percent of hiring managers report emotional intelligence as more important in a potential employee than high IQ. Emotional intelligence lends itself to entrepreneurial potential, leadership talent, positivity and openness to criticism — all of which are skills that employers are looking for.
Can you increase emotional intelligence?
Though there are obvious advantages to increasing emotional intelligence, there are arguments over whether you can actually do it. Some experts say it’s an innate skill that we’re born with, while others say you can improve it through training programmes. Even the theory’s architects are divided about whether emotional intelligence can be taught. Mayer believes that genetics and early life experiences predominantly shape EQ. Salovey agrees that emotional intelligence is partially innate, but maintains that people can at least slightly better their emotional regulation.
In truth, our ability to identify and manage our own and others’ emotions is reasonably stable over time. It’s influenced mostly by our early childhood experiences. While this doesn’t mean that it’s inalterable, any long-term improvements would require considerable dedication and guidance. As such, any programme that aspires to raise bona fide emotional intelligence will have modest results at best.
Although it may be a while before we have the results of more research on the subject, it’s pretty clear that understanding our own emotions — and the emotions of others — can give us a distinct advantage in life.