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What Is Emotional Intelligence (EI)?

The Four Branch Model of Emotional Intelligence

The four branch model of emotional intelligence describes four areas of capacities or skills that collectively describe many of areas of emotional intelligence (Mayer & Salovey, 1997). More specifically, this model defines emotional intelligence as involving the abilities to:

  • accurately perceive emotions in oneself and others

  • use emotions to facilitate thinking

  • understand emotional meanings, and

  • manage emotions


By the late 1980's, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, psychiatrists, computer scientists, and others, had identified a number of human capacities involved in identifying and understanding emotions. These human capacities -- involving emotional information processing -- had been examined in scores of research articles.

One means of organizing the many research contributions was to divide them into different areas according to the nature of the abilities they examined. In 1990, Salovey and I proposed that these abilities made up a unitary emotional intelligence. We further suggested that emotional intelligence (and the research that pertained to it) could be divided into three broad areas (and further sub-areas), as shown in Figure 1 of this article. After further reviews, we saw the need to add an additional area. The full four-branch model was published in 1997 in Figure 1.1 of this book chapter.

What Are the Four Branches?

1. PERCEIVING EMOTION. The initial, most basic, area has to do with the nonverbal reception and expression of emotion. Evolutionary biologists and psychologists have pointed out that emotional expression evolved in animal species as a form of crucial social communication. Facial expressions such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear, were universally recognizable in human beings. Emotions researchers, evolutionary biologists, specialists in nonverbal behavior, and others, have made tremendous inroads into understanding how human beings recognize and express emotions. The capacity to accurately perceive emotions in the face or voice of others provides a crucial starting point for more advanced understanding of emotions.

2. USING EMOTIONS TO FACILITATE THOUGHT. The second area appeared every bit as basic as the first. This was the capacity of the emotions to enter into and guide the cognitive system and promote thinking. For example, cognitive scientists pointed out that emotions prioritize thinking. In other words: something we respond to emotionally, is something that grabs our attention. Having a good system of emotional input, therefore, should helped direct thinking toward matters that are truly important. As a second example, a number of researchers have suggested that emotions are important for certain kinds of creativity to emerge. For example, both mood swings, and positive moods, have been implicated in the capacity to carry out creative thought.

3. UNDERSTANDING EMOTIONS. Emotions convey information: Happiness usually indicates a desire to join with other people; anger indicates a desire to attack or harm others; fear indicates a desire to escape, and so forth. Each emotion conveys its own pattern of possible messages, and actions associated with those messages. A message of anger, for example, may mean that the individual feels treated unfairly. The anger, in turn, might be associated with specific sets of possible actions: peacemaking, attacking, retribution and revenge-seeking, or withdrawal to seek calmness. Understanding emotional messages and the actions associated with them is one important aspect of this area of skill.

Once a person can identify such messages and potential actions, the capacity to reason with and about those emotional messages and actions becomes of importance as well. Fully understanding emotions, in other words, involves the comprehension of the meaning of emotions, coupled with the capacity to reason about those meanings. It is central to this group of emotionally intelligent skills.

(For a more advanced discussion of emotional information, see the section, "Similarities and Differences Between Emotional and Cognitive Information" in this article).

4. MANAGING EMOTIONS. Finally, emotions often can be managed. A person needs to understand emotions convey information. To the extent that it is under voluntary control, a person may want to remain open to emotional signals so long as they are not too painful, and block out those that are overwhelming. In between, within the person's emotional comfort zone, it becomes possible to regulate and manage one's own and others' emotions so as to promote one's own and others' personal and social goals. The means and methods for emotional self-regulation has become a topic of increasing research in this decade.

Other Comments on the Four Branch Model

  • The term, "branch," came into use in reference to the figures that presented the precursor and present models. Figures in both papers (1990 & 1997) contained lines that branched off from a central point. So, the term "branch" conveys no specific scientific meaning; calling the model a "four-area model" would have worked as well.

  • The branches are arranged from the areas most specifically related to the emotions-area (perceiving emotions) to the areas most general to personality (managing emotions).

  • Within each branch, skills can be identified that are early-developing (e.g., in childhood), and skills that await greater maturity.

  • This four-branch model represents what today has become called the ability model of emotional intelligence.


Relation of the Models to the Popularizations

The first formal model of emotional intelligence -- the 1990 model -- was the one Daniel Goleman relied on in his popularization of the field -- although his representation of the model was quite a bit broader and more expansive than our original (Goleman, 1995, p. 43).

Dr. Goleman's book is a lively, entertaining journalistic account that covers many interesting studies. His enlargement of our model, however, had the unfortunate effect, of suggesting to some that nearly every human style or capacity that was not IQ itself was a part of emotional intelligence. These included motives, social skills, all forms of self-regulation, and warmth, among many other attributes. The problem with this idea is that those different psychological qualities are separate and independent from one another -- both conceptually and empirically (e.g., they do not correlate). Moreover, most of them have little to do directly and specifically either with emotion or intelligence. Lumping them together created considerable conceptual confusion. Today, such models are called "mixed models," as they mix many attributes unrelated to emotion, intelligence, or emotional intelligence, in with the emotional intelligence concept.