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Improving Emotional Knowledge and Social Effectiveness

Can Emotional Knowledge be Improved?

"Can you raise emotional intelligence?"

Psychologists mean something very specific when they speak of raising an intelligence. Recall that an intelligence is the capacity to engage in valid, abstract reasoning in relation to an area of information. Abstract reasoning requires (depending upon the situation), the capacity to learn and remember the material, to find similarities and differences among different ideas, to discover rules and generalize principles across what is encountered, and similar mental activities. In the realm of emotions, for example, it involves understanding the general nature of emotions, the meanings of individual emotions, the capacity to uncover similarities and differences among emotions, and to engage in other, related, mental activities.

These capacities at reasoning are the very essence of intelligence itself. It seems unlikely -- or at least difficult -- to raise them. Raising them might mean, for example, that a person could be trained in one area, and then, miraculously, have enhanced reasoning, abstracting, and better thought processes in a new domain. Although limited examples of such enhancements exist, it is very difficult to make these changes at present.

No well-conducted, published studies have been reported in regard to raising emotional intelligence to date. Up to now, however, with a few exceptions, emotional intelligence has behaved much like other intelligences, and it seems very unlikely that it could be easily raised. Still, as very little research exists on the topic, it remains an open question.

Can Emotional Knowledge be Enhanced?

It may not matter, however, whether emotional intelligence can be raised or not. When most people ask the question, what they may mean is “Is it possible for someone to increase his or her emotional knowledge?” and, perhaps, “Is it possible for someone to improve their social and emotional functioning?” In both cases, the answer is almost certainly yes.

First of all, it would be surprising if people could not learn something about emotions and emotional behavior. People are very good at learning, and emotions are fairly well understood. There is nothing mysterious about how to teach information about emotions.

Many educational curricula exist concerning teaching social and emotional effectiveness. In addition, some curricula can be focused on emotional learning in particular. Teaching emotional knowledge and teaching social and emotional functioning are somewhat different. (The distinction between them is discussed toward the end of this article).

Some resources for teaching about emotions are included in the "Links" portion of this section.

Does it Make Sense to Increase Emotional Knowledge?

Much of the clamor to increase emotional knowledge (or, less accurately, "raise emotional intelligence”) stemmed from the popularizations on the topic, which promised that it was both easy to raise emotional intelligence, and that it would cause a vast difference in one’s success in life. My perspective, discussed elsewhere in this web site (see the Controversies area) is that although emotional intelligence does make important predictions, and is important, there are also many other parts of personality -- skills, dispositions, and tendencies -- that are equally important as predictors of success in life. Moreover, emotional intelligence is unlikely to be any more easily raised than general intelligence. At the same time, emotional knowledge can be increased -- and probably fairly easily. The question arises why one would want to learn about the emotions?

There are, it seems to me, several reasons one would want to learn about emotions and emotional functioning. First, because, for many people, so little has been institutionalized and taught about emotions, a little learning in the emotions can provide a great deal of pay-off. It may well be that taking a brief course in emotions and emotional reasoning could have a positive effect on a person's social functioning. Just a little information -- particularly in a subject which prior to the 1980's and 1990's had been almost entirely ignored -- could make a considerable contribution. Still, this is all somewhat speculative as the research in the area is just starting.

Little Pertinent Research -- But More on Emotional and Social Literacy more Generally

There is little research to-date as to whether specifically learning emotional knowledge can change or enhance one’s own patterns of success or interpersonal effectiveness. On the other hand, research on broader training programs, such as those involving social and emotional literateracy programs, for example, do provide some support for the idea that social and emotional qualities can be taught. Links to some organizations that promote such ideas, and that disseminate information about them, can be found in the "Links " portion of this section.