What is emotional intelligence?


We’ve all heard of it at some point or another – that nebulous thing called Emotional Intelligence. But what is this attribute that crops up time and again in our papers, on our TV shows and online?

Well, according to an influential article (1) written by Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer (two of the leading researchers on emotional intelligence), emotional intelligence can be defined as,


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Emotional intelligence involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions

“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”


In a nutshell, it refers to your ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions, whether they’re your own, or someone else’s.

Nature or nurture?

Although the debate has been raging for quite some time, the extent to which emotional intelligence is inherited or learned remains unclear.

As with most human attributes and behaviors (from empathy to psychopathy), it’s likely that we all inherit the building blocks for a certain level of emotional intelligence, and that these can be strengthened and improved upon by external factors – including our childhood environment, our relationships and the education we receive (this can extend into our adulthood).

Like most skills, it’s something that we can work on and strive to hone – but before we look at some of the ways in which you can do this, let’s take a look at the four attributes of EI identified by Salovey and Mayer (2).

The following four branches start with some of our more basic psychological processes, and move into to higher, more psychologically integrated processes.

As Salovey and Mayer explain,


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

1. Perceiving Emotions

According to this model, before we can understand emotions, we have to be able to perceive them accurately first.

Often, this involves making sense of nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, the tone of someone’s voice, their gestures and body language.

2. Reasoning With Emotions

Step two refers to your ability to use emotions to help promote and support your cognitive activities – to help you think better.

Whether we know it or not, we rely heavily on our emotions to help us make decisions, large and small, throughout our day. Our emotions help us to decide what to pay attention to, react to, and prioritise.

3. Understanding Emotions

Once you’ve perceived an emotion, you have to then decode what it means within that particular context.

the 4 branches of Emozìtional intelligenceIf your friend looks and sounds really angry, it’s not enough for you to simply recognise her emotional state. For your interpretation to be useful, you have to interpret why she’s angry, what happened, and what it means in this current situation. Only then will you figure out the appropriate response and relate to her accordingly.

4. Managing Emotions

The final step, managing emotions, refers to your ability to deal with and respond to how you feel emotionally.

Being able to understand and regulate your own emotions as well as responding to the emotions of those around you is an integral, important aspect of emotional intelligence.


Why does it matter?

It’s been claimed that emotional intelligence is positively related to all kinds of important areas of our lives, most notably academic achievement, emotional health and occupational satisfaction (3). Some even believe that, as a predictor of (and factor in) achieving success in life, it’s even more important than intellectual intelligence (4).

Whether you think intellectual intelligence is overstated or not (and forgetting for a moment the rather limited tools we have for measuring this complex attribute), it makes sense that in our hyper connected world, in which we’re increasingly relying on our relationships and networks to succeed, those of us who are well versed in emotional intelligence may be better positioned to get ahead in life.

So, how can you tune up your EI?

Find out, as we explore this topic in greater depth this month…

(1) Salovey, P. & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9, pp. 185-211.
(2) Mayer, J. D. & Salovey, P. (1997). What is emotional intelligence? In P. Salovey & D. Sluyter (Eds). Emotional development and emotional intelligence: Implications for educators (pp. 3-31). New York: Basic Books.
(3) Elias, M.J., Zins, J.E., Weissberg, R.P., Frey, K.S., Greenberg, M.T., Haynes, N.M., Kessler, R., Schwab-Stone, M.E., & Shriver, T.P. (1997). Promoting social and emotional learning: Guidelines for educators. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
(4) Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. London: Bloomsbury.

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