Emotional Intelligence

The Basic Idea

What does it mean to be intelligent? You’ve heard the difference between “street smarts” (being able to handle practical situations well) and “book smarts” (doing well in school). Now think about the last few social interactions you had: did your intelligence play a role in navigating the conversation? You may be surprised to hear that, yes, intelligence matters very much in our interactions and day-to-day activities, although perhaps in unexpected ways.

Your emotional intelligence (EI) can drive your own behaviors, as well as impact others in positive or negative ways. Specifically, EI refers to the ability to monitor and discriminate between one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, and then use this information to guide one’s thoughts and actions.1 Since people differ in their abilities to understand and express their own emotions, EI will vary across people. By considering the components of EI, you may realize that it can have important implications for both your personal and professional lives.

In a very real sense we have two minds, one that thinks and one that feels.

– Daniel Goleman, psychologist, New York Times journalist, and author of Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ

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Back in 1985, Wayne L. Payne published a doctoral dissertation, entitled “A study of emotion: Developing emotional intelligence; self-integration; relating to fear, pain and desire.”2 The consensus is that this was the first usage of the term “emotional intelligence.” Payne argued that emotional awareness was an important characteristic for children to develop. While this was the first time the idea of EI was circulated, psychologists had previously recognized similar constructs: Edward Thorndike used the term “social intelligence” in the 1930s to describe the ability to get along with others, and Abraham Maslow wrote about emotional strength in the 1950s. Emotions had clearly been recognized earlier on as an important feature of human experiences.

However, the actualization of emotional intelligence most consistent with today’s use of the term came from research by Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer in 1990.1 When measuring differences in people’s emotional capabilities, they found that some people were better at identifying other people’s feelings and solving emotional problems. These people also seemed to be better at identifying their own feelings. Salovey and Mayer explored the role of emotion in traditional intelligence concepts such as IQ, and considered the role of emotional intelligence in mental health.

Despite Salovey and Mayer’s strides in pioneering the field of emotional intelligence, the academic nature of their research prevented them from gaining traction in the general population. In came Daniel Goleman, psychologist, consultant, and New York Times journalist. Goleman was conducting research for an upcoming book when he stumbled across Salovey and Mayer’s work. He was inspired by the idea that there could be a new way to approach the ingredients for life success.3 Employing the term “emotional intelligence,” Goleman published Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ in 1995. Bringing together psychological research and neuroscience by considering emotion regulation in the brain, Goleman’s book became an international bestseller. Globally, people began to consider the role of emotional intelligence.


Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer

The two researchers from Yale University and the University of New Hampshire, respectively, who theorized and developed the framework for emotional intelligence as a set of skills.2 Although their work published in 1990 did not gain much traction outside of academia, Salovey and Mayer pioneered the foundation of this prominent field. The researchers later went on to explore EI as a cognitive ability, separate from general intelligence (IQ).4 Specifically, they proposed a model composed of perceiving, facilitating, understanding, and managing emotions, ordered from basic to higher order abilities.

Daniel Goleman

An internationally known psychologist, Goleman reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for many years at The New York Times.3 His 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ became an international bestseller and popularized the concept of emotional intelligence beyond academia. The book has been called a must-read for business management and has lent to the development of emotional literacy programs. Goleman has continued to produce works and host lectures related to emotional intelligence.


Since the rise of emotional intelligence with Goleman’s work, EI has become a topic of interest in a variety of fields, including education, business, and research. Ultimately, it has been recognized that general intelligence (IQ) is not all that matters for success. Rather, people must have the necessary emotional capabilities and associated social skills to succeed in their personal, academic, and professional lives.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a curriculum branch that resulted from the study of emotional intelligence. It has been embraced by educators, as schools have implemented programs to teach children emotional intelligence skills. SEL has been known to not only improve personal outcomes such as enhancing well-being and increasing a sense of citizenship, but also academic outcomes.5 Since schools are social institutions and learning is inherently a social process, students with higher social and emotional skills are better equipped to navigate collaborative learning and self-regulation. Ultimately, the goals of SEL programs are two-fold: (1) to promote students’ self-regulation, self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making and relationship development; and (2) to improve students’ attitudes and beliefs about school, themselves, and others.6 By achieving such goals, students are expected to have a stable foundation for better social adjustments and academic outcomes, which has incentivized educators to incorporate new conceptualizations of intelligence and success into their classrooms.

Businesses have also taken a great interest in emotional intelligence, ranking Goleman’s works as must-reads for success in the industry and inviting Goleman to speak at corporate events.3 Even leading American business magazine Forbes has pushed for the importance of emotional intelligence in the business industry.7 EI has been recognized as a valuable construct for multiple industries and has resulted in the implementation of new programs to train for these valuable skills.


A concept as popular as emotional intelligence rarely manifests with little or no criticisms. One such critique is the response to Goleman’s interpretation. Some psychologists believe that Goleman distorted Salovey and Mayer’s original model, portraying an emotionally intelligent person as one who possesses the qualities of a nice person – such as being friendly and warm – instead of focusing on the connection between emotions and intelligence.8 Additionally, Mayer himself has said that Goleman broadened the definition to an extent that compromised its scientific meaning and prevented it from predicting real outcomes.9

Increased research has since been done on whether emotional intelligence is even a valid construct,10 and if so, how it should be defined and measured.11 Criticisms have appeared both toward emotional intelligence as a whole and Goleman’s work specifically.12 As with all instruments measuring personal traits, measurements of emotional intelligence offer the possibility for socially desirable responding, a process through which participants will respond in a way they think is expected of them, or that aligns with how they hope to be perceived. Some have also criticized the idea that emotional intelligence is an actual form of intelligence, rather than a set of behaviours related to general intelligence and applied to the domain of emotions.13 To this end, EI can be  considered more as a set of skills, than actual intelligence.

Finally, the criticisms surrounding the predictive power of emotional intelligence warrant their own discussion. Some scholars believe that the commercial discussion of EI makes exaggerated, expansive claims about the applied utility of EI, whereas academic discussions must warn against such claims.14 For example, Goleman mentions that the most effective leaders are alike in that they all have a high degree of EI. However, the implication that highly emotionally intelligent people possess a unique advantage in life is unsubstantiated by scientific standards. While EI can support and bolster performance, such as in positions of leadership, it does not guarantee success. Additionally, the data that such claims were based on are unavailable to independent researchers for replication or verification. Predictive power has also been claimed to be implicated by the self-report nature of EI instruments, relating to the issue of social desirability.15 Thus, the lack of objective measurements has been a core area of concern associated with EI.

Case Study

In the education system

Stemming from the rise of social and emotional learning programs, increasing research has measured the validity of emotional intelligence in schools, and its association with academic outcomes. Extending from a previous study that examined the role of emotional intelligence in the transition from high school to university, Parker and colleagues chose to specifically examine the relationship between EI and academic achievement in high school students.16 Based on the existing literature, the researchers hypothesized that high school students with higher levels of social and emotional competencies would perform better academically.

Sampling 667 students from a high school in Alabama who were evenly distributed from grades 9 through 12, students completed the Emotional Quotient Inventory: Youth Version (EQ-i:YV). Although the EQ-i:YV was a self-report measure of emotional intelligence, it has been reported to be reliable, such that the scales in the youth version correlate highly with comparable scales on the adult version. Students were also tracked on their academic progress from April through June and received an overall grade-point-average (GPA) based on the courses they took throughout the year.

The researchers found that overall emotional intelligence was a significant predictor of academic success, and predicted for 16-20% of variability in high school performance, based on students’ GPAs. When students across different academic levels – the top 20%, middle 60%, and bottom 20% – were compared, students in the top group had higher levels of adaptability, interpersonal, and stress management skills than the rest of the students. Students in the middle academic group also had higher levels of these skills, compared to the lowest academic group. Successful students scored higher on interpersonal abilities than less successful students, possibly explained by the fact that friendships become more connected with work and school as students enter high school. Overall, the results support the link between social and emotional competencies. It’s important to remember, however, that the link is simply that: an association does not explain why the researchers found this relationship. There could be a direct link, or there could be other factors included in the relationship.

In the business world

Recognized as important for success in a work environment and positions of leadership, Forbes magazine published a piece on emotional intelligence.7 The article outlines five components of EI (self-awareness, self-regulation, internal motivation, empathy, and people skills) before discussing why exactly EI is important in business. It also cites a study involving over 2,600 hiring managers, which found that 71% valued high emotional intelligence over high general intelligence. When asked why, the hiring managers indicated that those with high emotional intelligence are better at handling high-pressure situations, make more thoughtful business decisions, take criticism well and learn from their mistakes, and can effectively resolve conflict, to name a few. To this end, the article suggests ways to increase emotional intelligence, such as listening to others, attempting to control one’s thoughts, paying attention to body language, trying to understand other people’s perspectives, and communicating feelings. Considering the global recognition afforded to Forbes, statements such as “[emotional intelligence] is a necessary tool for providing social and economic solutions to people of vastly different circumstances and needs” suggest that businesses are indeed paying more attention to EI, also evident in the academic literature.

Related TDL Content

Chris Voss: Tactical Empathy for Modern Negotiating Success

Curious about specific applications of emotional intelligence and its utility? Check out Chris Voss’ recount of using tactical empathy to navigate a hostage situation while he was the head of the NYC FBI Crisis Negotiation team.

Bob Suh: Artificial Intelligence for Social Betterment

Does society have space for a relationship between emotional intelligence and developing technology? Take a listen to this podcast episode or read through the transcript to hear Bob Suh’s thoughts on the topic. Suh is the founder and CEO of OnCorps, a company dedicated to improving workplace performance through the implementation of artificial intelligence.


  1. Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9(3), 185-211.
  2. Zeidner, M., Matthews, G., & Roberts, R. D. (2012). What we know about emotional intelligence: How it affects learning, work, relationships, and our mental health. MIT Press.
  3. Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Bantam.
  4. Mayer, J. D., & Salovey, P. (1997). What is emotional intelligence? In P. Salovey & D. Sluyter (Eds.). Emotional development and emotional intelligence: Educational Implications (pp. 3-31). Basic Books.
  5. Zins, J .E. (Ed.). (2004). Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say? Teachers College Press.
  6. Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432.
  7. Moss, J. (2018, November 13). Emotional intelligence in business and leadership. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesnycouncil/2018/11/13/emotional-intelligence-in-business-and-leadership/?sh=73e7022459eb
  8. Murphy, A. M. (1999, June 28). Promotional intelligence. Salon. https://www.salon.com/1999/06/28/emotional/
  9. Mayer, J. D. (2004). What is emotional intelligence? UNH Personality Lab, 8, 1-13.
  10. Becker, T. (2003). Is emotional intelligence a viable concept? The Academy of Management Review, 28(2), 192-195.
  11. Pfeiffer, S. I. (2001). Emotional intelligence: Popular but elusive construct. Roeper Review, 23(3), 138-142.
  12. Murphy, K. R. (2006). A critique of emotional intelligence: What are the problems and how can they be fixed? Psychology Press.
  13. Locke, E. A. (2005). Why emotional intelligence is an invalid concept. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26(4), 425-431.
  14. Landy, F. J. (2005). Some historical and scientific issues related to research on emotional intelligence. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26(4), 411-424.
  15. Murensky, C. L. (2000). The relationships between emotional intelligence, personality, critical thinking ability and organizational leadership performance at upper levels of management. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 61(2-B), 1121.
  16. Parker, J. D. A., Creque, R. E., Sr., Bamhart, D. L., Harris, J. I., Majeski, S. A., Wood, L. M., Bond, B. J., & Jogan, M. J. (2004). Academic achievement in high school: Does emotional intelligence matter? Personality and Individual Differences, 37(7), 1321-1330.

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