What is emotional intelligence?

According to Justin Bariso, emotional intelligence is "the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions to reach a goal."I Hosted Reddit's First 'Ask Me Anything' on Emotional Intelligence and Got Some Interesting Questions

The first step is emotional literacy: being able to name emotions and understand how they work.  Obviously a person with "emotional intelligence" understands emotions.  But how important can naming emotions be, really?  Consider: How important is learning your alphabet for reading literacy?  In both cases, they are foundational knowledge, critically important. 

Here's one reason why being fluent in the language of emotions is important. An Ornish Living team member writes, "There’s middle ground between trying to ignore a strong emotion and indulging it. And that middle ground has a name: Affect labeling."The Science Behind Why Naming Our Feelings Makes Us Happier Multiple neuroimaging studies suggest that putting feelings into words tends to reduce the impact of those emotions on the amygdala, the fear center of the brain. In other words, naming the emotion reduces its effect, while simultaneously focusing attention on what's happening, which is necessary in order to intelligently process the experience."This suggests that affect labeling tends to dampen affective responses in general, rather than specifically alleviating negative affect." - Good Medicine by Dr James Hawkins  It puts us in control of our emotions, rather than the other way around.

In essence, the act of noticing and labeling a strong emotion seems to engage our executive brain, transform the emotion into an object of scrutiny, and disrupt the intensity.Dr. Tammy Lenski

According to the founders of the concept of "emotional intelligence"Mayer, J.D., Perkins, D., Caruso, D., & Salovey, P. (2001). Emotional intelligence and giftedness. Roeper Review, 23, 131 - 137., those high in emotional intelligence manifest the following:

  • The ability to foresee or control circumstances
  • The ability to describe motivations, feelings, or possible outcomes
  • An eye for emotional detail
  • The ability to consider an idea's plausibility
  • Detailed consideration of emotional ramifications
  • An understanding of social consequences
  • Empathy
  • The ability to make clear decisions and unequivocal action
  • The capacity to take multiple, conflicting perspectives concerning emotional situations

The article also alerted me to the possibility that emotional intelligence might be related to "some of the phenomena of psychological defense." I look forward to exploring this concept in depth later.

The number of components of emotional intelligence vary depending on the source.  According to Daniel Goleman, an American psychologist who helped to popularize emotional intelligence, there are five key elements to it:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social skills

Fundamentally, EI involves awareness, motivation, and control.  While the "intelligence" part implies that EI is fixed, there are reasons to believe that it can be improved.

My impression so far is that "emotional intelligence" is primarily a product of healthy parenting.  Children go through stages of maturity, and some fail to mature in some ways.  We all know adults who act in childish ways.  My hypothesis is that they didn't receive adequate training on emotional awareness and emotion regulation from their parents.  For an extreme example, consider experiments conducted by Harry Harlow in the 1960s on Rhesus monkeys.  Infant monkeys who were deprived of the social aspect of having a live, natural mother grew up as socially deficient and aggressive."Females separated at birth from their own mothers and deprived of early interaction with peers were distinctly deficient in basic patterns of maternal behavior when compared with feral-raised mothers." Arling, G. L., & Harlow, H. F. (1967). Effects of social deprivation on maternal behavior of rhesus monkeys. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 64(3), 371–377. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0025221 While Harlow's research methods are distressing to read about, they greatly underscore the importance of environment on the development of personality and social skills.

A study of 152 families with adolescent children found evidence of "the relevant role of parents in the development of trait EI."  The study acknowledges that the data obtained "do not allow conclusions to be drawn about causal relations," but it seems clear to me that the association of parenting methods with increased "trait EI" in children provides evidence that "trait EI" is a product of nurture more than nature.Another important conclusion of the study: "Parental psychoeducation may be integrated in the trait EI domain not only to improve parental trait EI, but to also promote autonomy-supportive parenting and as consequents improve future adolescents' trait EI and adjustment." Costa, S., Barberis, N., Gugliandolo, M. C., Larcan, R., & Cuzzocrea, F. (2018). The intergenerational transmission of trait emotional intelligence: The mediating role of parental autonomy support and psychological control. Journal of Adolescence, 68, 105–116. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2018.07.008

There's more evidence to back up my idea that emotional intelligence is a normal part of what being human should be.  Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, writing in Harvard Business Review, states that EI "tends to increase with age, even without deliberate interventions. That’s the technical way to say that (most people) mature with age."  He also points out that most people are unaware of their weaknesses are in this area.  Thus it's likely that each one of us needs more improvement than we're aware of.  He makes another statement that may surprise many: "Contrary to popular belief, interventions designed to enhance self-esteem or confidence are rarely effective and often counterproductive."

In light of the foregoing, parents should prioritize learning EI skills and modeling them for their children.  Imagine a mother, Jasmine, who wants to teach her toddler, Westley, effective emotional skills.  As they are getting ready to leave a friend's house, Westley manifests his desire to stay with a display of strong emotion. Jasmine models EI by accepting the emotion and re-directing her son. “You like playing with toys. You can play with your toys at home.” As tears and anger begin to surface on his face she responds, “You are feeling sad. You would like to bring this toy home,” gently accepting and affirming his feelings.  As Westley reluctantly acknowledges the parent's efforts, Jasmine offers, “Take my hand. Let’s walk the toy back to its home on the shelf. What toy would you like to play with when you get home?”Credit to Alex Petrou for this example of very effective parenting. 

It's easy to imagine this child, as an adult, being a good parent himself someday, as well as a well-adjusted student and valuable team member along the way.  Parental example can also be reinforced by creating a nurturing intellectual environment.  "Reading and discussing children's books with emotional content can improve emotional competence," Fernández-Berrocal and Checa wrote in Frontiers in Psychology
There's much more to write on the subject.  For example, for those of us who aren't children, how can we "grow up" and start improving our "emotional intelligence"?  I'll write about that next time.

In the meantime I'll leave you the three fundamentals of any useful strategy for improving "emotional intelligence," as summarized by Courtney E. Ackerman:From What is Emotional Intelligence? +18 Ways To Improve It. Very comprehensive. This is a good source for a basic history and overview of the concept of "emotional intelligence." While I don't necessarily agree with all the information presented, I do like her list of "qualities that describe people with low emotional intelligence."

  • Pay attention to your own feelings.
  • Try to remain objective and accepting of them.
  • Think about how your actions affect others.