Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to reason with, and about, emotions. This is the ability model of emotional intelligence developed by psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer in 1990. However, since that time, emotional intelligence has come to mean many different things to both the public and to researchers. Some popular approaches to emotional intelligence (also referred to as EQ, for emotional quotient) view emotional intelligence as a set of personality traits or as a set of traditional leadership competencies. The result has been a good deal of confusion, as models and assessments that have little or no basis in either emotions or intelligence employ the EI or EQ terminology. Emotional intelligence defined as traits or competencies does not appear to offer anything new, whereas EI defined as an ability may or may not represent a new construct.

The term emotional intelligence had been used in an unsystematic way in the 1980s and earlier, but it became widely known in 1995 through the publication of a trade book titled Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, written by Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and science writer for the New York Times. The book became a best-selling publication. It described a loose collection of skills and traits as emotional intelligence, thus permitting a wide range of preexisting models, assessments, and approaches to be relabeled to include the term emotional intelligence. Even researchers began to base their work on this trade book, rather than examining the intelligence-based roots of the construct.

Definitions of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence can be defined as a set of personality traits, as competencies, or as an intelligence.

Trait-based approaches gather together traits such as optimism, assertiveness, and reality testing to create an EQ construct. Competency-based approaches include traditional leadership competencies such as influence, communication, and self-awareness. The ability-based approach to EI posits four related abilities: identifying emotions accurately; using emotions to facilitate thinking; understanding emotional causes and progressions; and managing emotions to result in optimal outcomes.

What an Emotional Intelligence Should Look Like

Approaches to emotional intelligence can best be evaluated by looking at the two parts of the construct: emotions and intelligence.

Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence

Intelligence has been defined in a number of ways, such as the ability to think abstractly, to reason, and to adapt to environmental demands. The existence of a general mental ability factor (g) does not preclude the possible existence of other intelligences, such as spatial or emotional, and the importance of more specialized abilities has also been recognized by g theorists such as John Carroll. Evidence as to what sort of intelligence an emotional intelligence might be is very limited, but there is a suggestion that it might be best viewed as a crystallized rather than a fluid intelligence.

Emotion and Emotional Intelligence

An emotional intelligence must be based on the processing of emotions or emotional information. Emotions are complex and likely involve a number of processes, including cognition, arousal, motor activity, and action tendencies. Emotions are signals, primarily about interpersonal events and relationships. Emotions can also be differentiated from moods: emotions are more specific and goal-oriented than are moods. An emotional intelligence should address the processing and management of both moods and emotions.

Evaluating Models of Emotional Intelligence

There is no agreed-on definition of emotional intelligence, but it seems clear that an acceptable scientific definition must position emotional intelligence as a form of standard intelligence that operates on, and/or with, emotional information.

Measurement of Emotional Intelligence

Measures of EI can be placed in a three-by-three matrix: how EI is defined (trait, competency, or ability model) and the measurement method used. It can be measured via a traditional self-report survey (“I tune in to people’s emotions”), a competency 360 (“George tunes in to people’s emotions”), or an ability test (“Indicate what emotions are expressed by this face”). Common tests include the Bar-On EQ-i (a self-report trait EI measure), the Emotional Competency Inventory (ECI, a 360 competency measure), and the Mayer, Salovey, Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT, an ability measure of ability EI). Generally speaking, self-report measures of trait-based EI do not appear to substantially differ from traditional personality measures (e.g., Big 5 measures), and self-report measures of ability EI are generally unrelated to ability measures of ability EI.

The major difficulty with ability-based EI measures such as the MSCEIT is how to determine the correct answers to the emotional problems. Consider an item on the “faces” task of the MSCEIT: a photo of a person’s face. The test taker rates the face on the presence of a number of discrete emotions. Several methods have been attempted for scoring such an item, including target scoring (agreement with the person expressing the emotion), general consensus (agreement with a large sample of test takers), and expert consensus (agreement with a sample of emotions experts). Although expert and general consensus scores tend to converge, suggesting that there are right answers to such test items, the absence of true, veridical scoring criteria remains a limitation of the ability approach to measuring EI.

Predictive Validity of Emotional Intelligence

One of the many popular appeals of emotional intelligence was the claim that it was “twice as important as IQ.” However, the actual claim was that emotional intelligence, defined loosely, was a better predictor than was analytical intelligence (IQ) for certain “soft” outcomes such as relationship quality. In reality, EI as a trait shows little discriminant validity above and beyond traditional personality variables. Emotional intelligence as an ability, controlling for IQ and Big Five traits, has some predictive validity. Ability EI appears to be predictive of the quality of interpersonal relationships and, inversely, of the frequency of negative behaviors.

Findings for ability EI in the workplace are not robust, but there is a suggestion that ability EI has some predictive power for a limited range of performance “how” outcomes as opposed to performance “what” outcomes. Some of these outcomes relate to quality of vision statements, team support networks, and team-oriented leadership styles.

Training of Emotional Intelligence

Trait- and competency-based EI training programs have been developed, with participants demonstrating significant pretest-posttest differences. However, these evaluations are based on self-report EI measures and may simply reflect expectation bias. To date, there is no evidence that supports the contention that ability EI can be increased. Indeed, if EI is viewed as a standard intelligence, then it is unlikely that a training intervention, especially a short-term one, would demonstrate an impact on measured EI.


The trait-based and competency-based approaches to emotional intelligence are nothing new. However, once the overblown popular claims for an emotional intelligence are critically examined, we conclude that emotional intelligence, defined as a standard intelligence, is a construct separate from general cognitive ability or dispositional personality traits (e.g., Big 5), can be measured reliably, and is modestly predictive of a narrow range of important life outcomes.


  1. Caruso, D. R., & Salovey, P. (2004). The emotionally intelligent manager-. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam.
  3. Matthews, G., Zeidner, M., & Roberts, R. D. (2002). Emotional intelligence: Science and myth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  4. Mayer, J. D., Salovey, P., & Caruso, D. R. (2004). Emotional intelligence: Theory, findings, and implications. Psychological Inquiry, 60, 197-215.
  5. Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9, 185-211.

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