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Emotional Intelligence: Implications

What Does Emotional Intelligence Predict?

Setting the Context: What do Personality Traits Predict?

Emotional intelligence can be used to make meaningful and interesting predictions to a person's life outcomes. Unfortunately, some misleading claims also have been made about emotional intelligence and what it predicts, particularly surrounding the 1995 popularization of the concept.

Various popularizers made misleading claims about the importance of emotional intelligence in the mid-1990's. One of these erroneous claims, for example, was that emotional intelligence is "the best predictor of success in life."

My colleagues and I never made such claims for emotional intelligence -- and indeed, we were among the first to point out and criticize such claims (for example, see here). To see more about the misleading claims, and our responses to them, go to the Controversies section of this web site and click on “Is Emotional Intelligence the Best Predictor of Success in Life?”

Some advocates of emotional intelligence have been disappointed that my colleagues and I have not been more supportive of the stronger claims made for emotional intelligence. In 2004, I engaged in an e-mail discussion with Joshua Freedman, concerning those issues. You can see it in the Controversies section of this web site, under "Have the originators of EI missed the point of their own work?"

What Does EI Predict?

To understand and evaluate the influence of emotional intelligence, it helps to know something about how the parts of personality influence a person's life in general. Most parts of personality exert a slow but consistent influence on a person’s social interactions and environment more generally.

For example, a given personality trait, such as extraversion, typically accounts for between 9% and 16% of the variance of a single act, such as deciding to go to a party. The idea is that, because many personality qualities are consistent over time, these traits exert influence over the individual’s actions and behaviors for very long periods of time, and that over those periods of time, they influence the person’s social development and attainments.

Tutorial: How do we know this?

Psychologists typically assess the influence of a personality trait according to the percentage degree to which it accounts for a person's deviation from average. For example, imagine a high school in which the average grade is a "B". Assuming the grades are normally distributed, many students frequently obtain B grades. Sometimes, however, letter grades of C and A are given (and sometimes D, and F, too). Now let's assume that a student obtains a grade average of A.

The question is, to what degree is general intelligence responsible for that student's higher grade? To answer the question, a researcher first correlates general intelligence and grade-point average across the students. A correlation is obtained of, say, r = .50. Square that correlation (.25), and that provides the proportion of variance explained. When multiplied by a hundred, the percentage of variance explained in grades accounted for by general intelligence is obtained...25%.

Note: This is a slight simplification, as one is typically dealing with percentage explained of squared deviation units, but it conveys the general idea.

A Focus on Emotional Intelligence

To fully review the findings obtained with ability measures of emotional intelligence and life outcomes is beyond the scope of this web page. What follows below is a suggestive and general summary. For a detailed, comprehensive, and documented review of findings regarding emotional intelligence (as an ability) click here. For the quick-facts overview, continue here:

1. Emotional Intelligence (measured as an ability) is Distinct From Other Commonly-Measured Variables Related to Personality and Intelligence.

  • Emotional intelligence has rather low test-to-test correlations with scales of other types of intelligence (e.g., r = .00 to .35).
  • Emotional intelligence has rather low test-to-test correlations with scales of social and emotional traits (e.g., r = .00 to .35) (including self-judged/mixed model scales of emotional intelligence).

2. People with higher emotional intelligence are likely to have better social support, and fewer problematic interactions with others.

  • People higher in emotional intelligence are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.
  • People higher in emotional intelligence are more satisfied with their social networks and appear to receive more social support.
  • People higher in emotional intelligence seemed to more successfully avoid interpersonal arguments and fights.

The individual is better able to avoid drug problems, arguments, and interpersonal violence. These predictive relationships are at levels that are customary for personality variables. There is nothing extra small or extra large about the effects. That said, because high emotional intelligence involves the more successful resolution of personal conflict and lower levels of aggression, it is a highly desirable, and, often, personally valuable, attribute to possess. It seems plausible (though there is no direct empirical evidence for it yet) that when groups possess higher average emotional intelligence, they may behave in a more peaceful manner.

More detail on the predictions of emotional intelligence can be found in Mayer, J. D., Salovey, P., & Caruso, D. R. (2004). Emotional intelligence: Theory, findings, and implications. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 197-215.