What Is Emotional Intelligence?

History and Measures of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence involves our ability to understand, express, and control our emotions.. Image: Cultura/Liam Norris / Getty Images

The ability to express and control our emotions is essential, but so is our ability to understand, interpret, and respond to the emotions of others. Imagine a world in which you could not understand when a friend was feeling sad or when a co-worker was angry. Psychologists refer to this ability as emotional intelligence, and some experts even suggest that it can be more important than IQ.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

"All learning has an emotional base." - Plato

Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to the ability to perceive, control, and evaluate emotions. Some researchers suggest that emotional intelligence can be learned and strengthened, while others claim it is an inborn characteristic.

Since 1990, Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer have been the leading researchers on emotional intelligence. In their influential article "Emotional Intelligence," they defined emotional intelligence as, "the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions" (1990).

The Four Branches of Emotional Intelligence

Salovey and Mayer proposed a model that identified four different factors of emotional intelligence: emotional perception, the ability to reason using emotions, the ability to understand emotion, and the ability to manage emotions.

  1. Perceiving Emotions: The first step in understanding emotions is to perceive them accurately. In many cases, this might involve understanding nonverbal signals such as body language and facial expressions.
  2. Reasoning With Emotions: The next step involves using emotions to promote thinking and cognitive activity. Emotions help prioritize what we pay attention and react to; we respond emotionally to things that garner our attention.
  1. Understanding Emotions: The emotions that we perceive can carry a wide variety of meanings. If someone is expressing angry emotions, the observer must interpret the cause of their anger and what it might mean. For example, if your boss is acting angry, it might mean that he is dissatisfied with your work; or it could be because he got a speeding ticket on his way to work that morning or that he's been fighting with his wife.
  2. Managing Emotions: The ability to manage emotions effectively is a crucial part of emotional intelligence. Regulating emotions, responding appropriately, and responding to the emotions of others are all important aspect of emotional management.

According to Salovey and Mayer, the four branches of their model are, "arranged from more basic psychological processes to higher, more psychologically integrated processes. For example, the lowest level branch concerns the (relatively) simple abilities of perceiving and expressing emotion. In contrast, the highest level branch concerns the conscious, reflective regulation of emotion" (1997).

A Brief History of Emotional Intelligence

  • 1930s – Edward Thorndike describes the concept of "social intelligence" as the ability to get along with other people.
  • 1940s – David Wechsler suggests that affective components of intelligence may be essential to success in life.
  • 1950s – Humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow describe how people can build emotional strength.
  • 1975 - Howard Gardner publishes The Shattered Mind, which introduces the concept of multiple intelligences.
  • 1985 - Wayne Payne introduces the term emotional intelligence in his doctoral dissertation entitled "A study of emotion: developing emotional intelligence; self-integration; relating to fear, pain and desire (theory, structure of reality, problem-solving, contraction/expansion, tuning in/coming out/letting go)."
  • 1987 – In an article published in Mensa Magazine, Keith Beasley uses the term "emotional quotient." Some suggest that this is the first published use of the phrase, although Reuven Bar-On claims to have used the term in an unpublished version of his graduate thesis.
  • 1990 – Psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer publish their landmark article, "Emotional Intelligence," in the journal Imagination, Cognition, and Personality.
  • 1995 - The concept of emotional intelligence is popularized after a publication of psychologist and New York Times science writer Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

Measuring Emotional Intelligence

"In regard to measuring emotional intelligence – I am a great believer that criterion-report (that is, ability testing) is the only adequate method to employ. Intelligence is an ability, and is directly measured only by having people answer questions and evaluating the correctness of those answers." --John D. Mayer

  • Reuven Bar-On's EQ-i
    A self-report test designed to measure competencies including awareness, stress tolerance, problem-solving, and happiness. According to Bar-On, “Emotional intelligence is an array of noncognitive capabilities, competencies, and skills that influence one’s ability to succeed in coping with environmental demands and pressures.”
  • Multifactor Emotional Intelligence Scale (MEIS)
    An ability-based test in which test-takers perform tasks designed to assess their ability to perceive, identify, understand, and utilize emotions.
  • Seligman Attributional Style Questionnaire (SASQ)
    Originally designed as a screening test for the life insurance company Metropolitan Life, the SASQ measures optimism and pessimism.
  • Emotional Competence Inventory (ECI)
    Based on an older instrument known as the Self-Assessment Questionnaire, the ECI involves having people who know the individual offer ratings of that person’s abilities in several different emotional competencies.


Beasley, K. The Emotional Quotient. Mensa Magazine - United Kingdom Edition; 1987.

Gardner, H. The Shattered Mind. New York: Knopf; 1975.

Goleman, D. Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam; 2006.

Mayer, J. D., Salovey, P., & Caruso, D. R. Models of emotional intelligence. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.). Handbook of Intelligence (pp. 396-420). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press; 2000.

Payne, W.L. A study of emotion: developing emotional intelligence; self-integration; relating to fear, pain and desire (theory, structure of reality, problem-solving, contraction/expansion, tuning in/coming out/letting go). A Doctoral Dissertation. Cincinnati, OH: The Union For Experimenting Colleges And Universities; 1985.

Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. Emotional intelligence. Imagination, cognition, and personality, 1990;9(3), 185-211.

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