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Emotional Intelligence*


  • Background
  • What is emotional intelligence?
  • The Four Branch Model of emotional intelligence
  • The four branches considered individually
  • Relation of the model to journalistic accounts
  • Who is emotionally intelligent -- and does it matter?

*This essay combines, organizes, re-edits and updates (as of 27 July, 2012) several brifer essays that appeared orginally on another web site maintained by the lab, www.unh.edu/emotional_intelligence.


By the late 1980's, psychological research in both human cognition and human emotion was burgeoning. A small but active area of research emerged often referred to as "cognition and affect," an area concerned with how emotion influencs thought and how thought influences emotion. Many of these influences were neutral in terms of human ability. One of the major effects studied in the field concerned mood congruent judgment -- the tendency of good moods to render people more optimistic and to activate their positive thoughts more generally, and of bad moods to render people more pessimistic and to activate their negative thoughts. A few of these studies implicated the possibility that certain abilities were useful to understanding emotion -- a kind of emotional information processing.

In 1990, Peter Salovey and I published two articles on an "emotional intelligence." The first, entitled "Emotional Intelligence" laid out an organizing theory of the abilities we believed at the time would be adaptive in thinking about, and thinking with, emotions (Salovey & Mayer, 1990). The second article was a demonstration study that suggested that emotional intelligence existed and could be measured (Mayer, DiPaolo, & Salovey, 1990). In the theoretical article, we introduced the concept of emotional intelligence. We further suggested that emotional intelligence could be divided into several broad areas of abilities. In 1997 we revised our model, to create the four-branch model (Mayer & Salovey, 1997; the revised model is described below).

In 1995, Daniel Goleman, then a journalist with the New York Times, published a book which he also entitled "Emotional Intelligence" that drew in part from our research. The book was highly successful and drew a great deal of attention to research about emotions and to our own theory as well, for which we are grateful. Yet the book also portrayed our theory in ways that were a bit different from how we might have described it at the time. Below, I describe our theory as I have developed it with Dr. Salovey, and how we have described it in our most recent publications.

What Is Emotional Intelligence (EI)?

There are many possible definitions of emotional intelligence, and many definitions can be found on the web. Some of the definitions stem from the popularizations of emotional intelligence found in the popular press and in popular books.

As I see it, a clear and scientifically useful definition of emotional intelligence is recognizeable because it takes the terms "emotion" and "intelligence" seriously. That is, the meaning of emotional intelligence has something specific to do with the intelligent intersection of the emotions and thoughts. In our own view of EI:

Emotional intelligence represents an ability to validly reason with emotions and to use emotions to enhance thought.

A more formal definition is...

We define EI as the capacity to reason about emotions, and of emotions to enhance thinking. It includes the abilities to accurately perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth (p. 197 of Mayer, Caruso & Salovey, 1999).

Here is another definition my colleagues and I have employed:

Emotional intelligence refers to an ability to recognize the meanings of emotion and their relationships, and to reason and problem-solve on the basis of them. Emotional intelligence is involved in the capacity to perceive emotions, assimilate emotion-related feelings, understand the information of those emotions, and manage them. (p. 267 of Mayer, Salovey & Caruso, 2004)

Emotion. In this model, emotion refers to a feeling state (including physiological responses and cognitions) that conveys information about relationships. For example, happiness is a feeling state that also conveys information about relationships -- typically, that one would like to join with others. Similarly, fear is a feeling state that corresponds to a relationship -- the urge to flee others.

Intelligence. In this model, intelligence refers to the capacity to reason validly about information.

This use of the term emotional intelligence in this fashion is consistent with scientific literature in the fields of intelligence, personality psychology, and emotions (for more, see the similar discussion in this article).

For example:

Verbal intelligence concerns the mental ability to reason with and about verbal information, and of verbal knowledge to enhance thought.

Spatial intelligence concerns the mental ability to reason with and about spatial information (i.e., the shape of objects and their orientation in space), and of spatial knowledge to enhance thought.

...and so on.

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. A schematic of the first diagram looks like this:

Four branches of the model


More specifically, this model defines emotional intelligence as involving the abilities to:

The Four Branches Considered Individually

Perceiving Emotion

The initial, most basic skill 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.

Using Emotions to Facilitate Thought

The second area concerns emotion's contribution to thinking. We hypothesized that emotions possess the capacity to enter into and to 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.

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.

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.

The Four Branches Work Together

Together, the four branches interact with one another to promote the perception, use, understanding, and mangement of emotion. One way to envision this interaction is as a cycle, as illustrated in the following diagram.

Emotional intelligence as a cycle


Other Comments on the Four Branch Model

Relation of the Model to Journalistic Accounts

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 effect, of suggesting to some readers (including us) that a great number of human styles and capacities (excepting IQ itself) were part of emotional intelligence. In specific, the book seemed to us to imply that such qualities as optimism, the need for achievement, and general self-control all were part of EI. Yet such qualities as the need for achievement and optimism are separate and independent from one another -- both conceptually and empirically -- as well as from the abilities we saw as going together to form EI; that is, the need for achievement, optimism, and other traits have their own distinct definitions and do not always go together. Combining them together (as some psychologists tended to do) created considerable conceptual confusion. Today, we refer to such models as "mixed models," as they mix many attributes unrelated to emotion, intelligence, or emotional intelligence, in with the emotional intelligence concept. We recommend that psyhologists and others no longer refer to such entities as optimism and the need for achievement as emotional intelligence, but rather that psychologists and others call these traits by their proper names (i.e., need for achievement and optimism).

Who Is Emotionally Intelligent -- And Does It Matter?

A Description of the High EI Individual

Generally speaking, emotional intelligence improves an individual's social effectiveness: the higher the emotional intelligence, the better the social relations. In a recent review, my colleagues and I described the emotionally intelligent person in these terms:

The high EI individual, most centrally, can better perceive emotions, use them in thought, understand their meanings, and manage emotions, than others. Solving emotional problems likely requires less cognitive effort for this individual. The person also tends to be somewhat higher in verbal, social, and other intelligences, particularly if the individual scored higher in the understanding emotions portion of EI. The individual tends to be more open and agreeable than others. The high EI person is drawn to occupations involving social interactions such as teaching and counseling more so than to occupations involving clerical or administrative tasks.

The high EI individual, relative to others, is less apt to engage in problem behaviors, and avoids self-destructive, negative behaviors such as smoking, excessive drinking, drug abuse, or violent episodes with others. The high EI person is more likely to have possessions of sentimental attachment around the home and to have more positive social interactions, particularly if the individual scored highly on emotional management. Such individuals may also be more adept at describing motivational goals, aims, and missions. (Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2004, p. 210)

Note that the specific kind of boost that emotional intelligence gives the individual will be subtle, and as a consequence, require some effort to identify. It will not be exhibited in all social circumstances.

The Significance of EI

Some of us accomplish certain tasks with great ease and sophistication; others of us simply cannot perform certain tasks. This is the case with most challenges we face in life. Some of us are great chess players while others of us have trouble just figuring out how the pieces move. Some of us are fabulous conversationalists, while others of us have trouble just saying hello.

Now, the world could do without the game of chess, and the world could do without fabulous conversationalists, but it would be a poorer place for it.

Emotional intelligence is an intelligence having to do with discerning and understanding emotional information. Emotional information is all around us. Emotions communicate basic feeling states from one individual to another -- they signal urgent messages such as "let's get together" or "I am hurting" or "I'm going to hurt you."

What ability tests of emotional intelligence tell us is that only some people can pick up and understand and appreciate the more subtle versions of those messages. That is, only the high EI individual understands the full richness and complexities of these communications.

Emotional information is crucial. It is one of the primary forms of information that human beings process. That doesn't mean that everybody has to be high in EI, but it does mean that emotional information is circulating around us, and certain people who can pick up on it can perform certain tasks very well that others cannot perform.

We all can be helped by possessing some minimal level of emotional intelligence to help us through our emotionally demanding days (and most of us have this minimum level). Even if we are not emotionally intelligent ourselves, we may rely on those higher in emotional intelligence to guide us.

But guide us to what? What is it that people high in emotional intelligence can see that so many others are blind to? The key to this lies in what those high in emotional intelligence are particularly good at doing themselves.

They're particularly good at establishing positive social relationships with others, and avoiding conflicts, fights, and other social altercations. They're particularly good at understanding psychologically healthy living and avoiding such problems as drugs and drug abuse. It seems likely that such individuals, by providing coaching advice to others, and by directly involving themselves in certain situations, assist other individuals and groups of people to live together with greater harmony and satisfaction.

So, perhaps even more important than scoring high on an emotional intelligence test, is knowing one's level at this group of skills. Discovering one's level means that you can know whether and how much to be self-reliant in emotional areas, and when to seek others' help in reading the emotional information that is being communicated around oneself. Whether one is high or low in emotional intelligence, is perhaps not as important as knowing that emotional information exists and that some people can understand it. Knowing just that, one can use emotional information by finding those who are able to understand it and reason with it.

This is the information age. All of us are dependent on information and using it wisely. The advent of the ability model of emotional intelligence enriches our knowledge of the information surrounding us -- it tells us emotional information is there and that some people can see it and use it. The model encourages all of us to use emotional information wisely -- whether through our own direct understanding, or through the assistance of those who do understand.

Appendix: Glossary of Terms

Emotional intelligence can be compared and contrasted with a number of other parts of personality. These other parts are distinct from emotional intelligence both conceptually and empirically. That means that each part has a definition that is distinct from emotional intelligence. Moreover, although a person may be high in emotional intelligence, they may be high or low in many of these other characteristics.

Personality trait: a relatively consistent characteristic that a person exhibits in different situations. Examples of traits include: emotional intelligence, need for achievement, optimism.

Mixed models of emotional intelligence: these models describe a conception of emotional intelligence that includes not only mental abilities related to intelligence and emotion, but also other personality dispositions and traits such as motives, sociability and warmth.

Empathy: including a feeling for others, sympathetic reactions to their feelings, and imaginative involvement in how the other person might be feeling.

Emotional self-efficacy: a person's belief that he or she possesses empathy and assertiveness as well as elements of social intelligence, personal intelligence, and ability emotional intelligence.

Socio-emotional effectiveness: an individual's capacity to navigate the social world in an effective manner, accomplishing his or her goals as needed.

Socio-emotionally effective behavior: the observable acts of the individual the lead to emotional and social effectiveness of interactions with others.

Interest: a motivational urge to pursue learning about a topic.

Curiosity: a motivational and emotional urge to explore and understand ideas.

Intrinsic Intellectuality: one term (of several, e.g., need for cognition) that describes a person's generally intellectual orientation.


Please note: Some key reprints of articles on emotional intelligence may be found in the "Reprints" area of this web site.

Mayer, J. D., Caruso, D., & Salovey, P. (1999). Emotional intelligence meets traditional standards for an intelligence. Intelligence, 27, 267-298.

Mayer, J. D., & Ciarrochi, J. (2006). Clarifying concepts related to emotional intelligence: A proposed glossary. In J. Ciarrochi, J. Forgas, & J. D. Mayer (Eds). Emotional intelligence in everyday life (2nd ed). New York: Psychological Press.

For a more in-depth discussion of these terms, please see: Mayer, J. D., Salovey, P., & Caruso, D. R. (2000). Models of emotional intelligence. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.). Handbook of Intelligence (pp. 396-420). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

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