Is ‘Emotional Intelligence’ Even a Thing? Here’s The Science

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Emotional intelligence, the ability to regulate and perceive emotions, is the subject of much debate amongst scientists and the public alike.

Whilst most people agree that being able to read other people and control your own feelings are positive characteristics that vary in strength between individuals, objectively defining and measuring these abilities is not easy.


We asked 13 experts in psychology “Is there scientific evidence for emotional intelligence?”, most of the experts said “yes”. Here’s what we found out.

What is emotional intelligence?

The phrase ’emotional intelligence’ or EI was first coined in the early 1990s, and was defined as the ability to express, control and perceive emotions.

Since then, many studies have investigated this area and identified different types of EI. Professor Leehu Zysberg, an expert from Gordon College of Education, explains the “most common of which are Trait EI and Ability EI.”

“[Trait EI] relies on self-report measures that correspond and associate significantly with other measures of personality (in current research it is usually the ‘big five’ personality traits).”

The Big Five personality traits are extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Dr Zysberg goes on to say that “the correlations between trait EI measures and personality traits are so high that one may claim EI belongs in one or more branches of the big five.”

The other type of EI, Ability EI, is not considered a personality trait. Instead, it describes the ability to perceive, understand and use emotions to do different things. Ability EI could be considered a form of intelligence (like IQ) rather than a personality trait, though this is highly contested.


What is the evidence for emotional intelligence?

Most of the experts agreed that there is scientific evidence for emotional intelligence. This is because EI scores can predict other measurable outcomes, in a similar way to IQ. High ability EI has been shown to correlate with positive relationships and career success.

Professor Brian Partido, an expert from Ohio State University, explains that “mental health, physical health, and life satisfaction all have been linked to having a high emotional intelligence. Most recently, emotional intelligence was found to be a predictor of academic and clinical performance among dental hygiene students.”

Professor Carrie Lloyd, an expert from Northcentral University, offers another example: “Increased EI has a beneficial effect in terms of current depression status. [My] study indicated that for every 1-point increased in the EQ scaled score, the risk of depression decreased by 5 percent.

“This is a highly significant result, as this provides clear evidence that; emotional intelligence and depression are strongly related in the older adult population.”

How is emotional intelligence measured?

The different types of emotional intelligence are measured in different ways. Trait EI is measured using self-report tests, like personality tests.

Self-report tests present some challenges, as Professor Andrew Lane from Wolverhampton University highlights: “Emotional intelligence is hard to measure; can people report on their inner knowledge? If you have poor emotional intelligence, you won’t know how good you are but might recognise that being good in emotional intelligence is desirable – because questionnaires are relatively easy to guess what is being assessed.”


Ability EI is measured using tests such as MSCEIT, which uses emotion-based problems to test emotional awareness. Although the test is modelled on the IQ test, it is much more difficult to measure EI scores as often emotion-based questions do not have one correct answer.

In general, measuring emotional intelligence is very difficult, particularly because we still don’t have a clear understanding of exactly what EI is.

Professor Igor Grossmann, an expert from Waterloo University, summarises: “The answer to this question depends on the definition and measurement of emotional intelligence. The construct is complex and its measurement, often relying on self-reports, is often flawed.

“The broader construct of emotional intelligence as an ability to recognize one’s and others’ emotions and regulate one’s emotions to fit the features of the situation is likely real. But its measurement requires expensive methods many companies and scholars are not willing to pay for.”

The takeaway: There is scientific evidence for the human ability to understand and regulate emotions, but emotional intelligence is not yet clearly defined or easily measured.

Article based on 13 expert answers to this question: “Is there scientific evidence for emotional intelligence?”

This expert response was published in partnership with independent fact-checking platform Subscribe to their weekly newsletter here.


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