Reintroducing Emotional Intelligence: What it Is and Where We Stand Now

neal-ashkanasyNeal M. Ashkanasy, UQ Business School, The University of QueenslandMarie T. 2marie (1)Dasborough, School of Business, University of Miami

 The History of Emotional Intelligence

March 2015 – While the term “emotional intelligence” was first introduced to English language readers in a dissertation by Payne (1986), the initial formal definition was published four years later by Salovey and Mayer (1990), who defined the construct as an ability, specifically an ability to perceive emotions in self and others, to understand emotions, and ultimately to manage emotions. The concept was subsequently popularized by New York Times journalist Daniel Goleman (1995), whose book, Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, became a bestseller and was even featured on the cover of Time Magazine. Mayer and Salovey (1997) later refined their definition into the “four branch” model, which involves four abilities:

  • Ability to perceive emotion in self and others (e.g., correctly identifying a perceived emotional expression as fear)
  • Ability to use emotion to facilitate cognitive activities like thinking and problem solving (e.g., knowing how to capitalize on a happy mood swing to engage in a creative task)
  • Ability to understand emotional information (e.g. understanding how two emotions can blend into a third emotion)
  • Ability to manage emotion in self and others (e.g. detaching from fear states that interfere with one’s functioning).

Based in this four-branch model, Mayer, Salovey, and Caruso (2002) devised an “abilities measure” of emotional intelligence, which they called the MSCEIT (Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test). The MSCEIT resembles an IQ test, in the sense that emotional skills are measured on the basis of performance on actual tasks (two tasks for each ability).

Examples of such tasks include identifying the discrete emotion displayed on a face (ability to perceive emotions), identifying the type of mood that would facilitate a certain cognitive activity (ability to use emotions), identifying whether or not contempt is a blend of anger and disgust (ability to understand emotions), and identifying an optimal regulation strategy in the emotional situation described in a vignette (ability to manage emotions) (see here for some examples of MSCEIT items).

At around the same time, however, and as a direct consequence of the popularization of the construct, a number of alternative measures of emotional intelligence began to appear. Ashkanasy and Daus (2005) categorized such measures into three “streams.” Stream 1 measures are based on the Mayer and Salovey (1997) definition of emotional intelligence as an ability, and they include most prominently the MSCEIT. Ashkanasy and Daus referred to the MSCEIT as the “gold standard” of emotional intelligence measurement.

Stream 2 measures also rely on the Mayer-Salovey definition, but they are based on self- or peer-report questionnaire instruments, rather than a task-based test. For example, instead of asking respondents to identify a particular emotional expression (as depicted in a photograph), respondents might be asked to indicate the extent to which they feel they are able to recognize emotion in facial expressions. Examples of Stream 2 measures include the WEIP (Workgroup Emotional Intelligence Test: see Jordan, Ashkanasy, Härtel, & Hooper, 2002) and the WLEIS (Wong and Law Emotional Intelligence Scale, Wong & Law, 2002). Since these Stream 2 measures are self-reports about emotional abilities, we suggest that they might be better viewed as targeting perceived “emotional self-efficacy” (i.e., how emotionally intelligent we think we are).

Stream 3 measures take a further step away from MSCEIT. Besides usually relying on self-reports, Stream 3 measures also presuppose definitions of emotional intelligence that are different from the one proposed by Mayer and Salovey (1997). For example, the Bar-On EQi measure defines emotional intelligence in terms of intra- and interpersonal self-awareness, stress management, adaptability, and general mood (Bar-On, 2006), using a scale developed in the author’s doctoral research into the clinical condition of alexithymia (Ashkanasy & Daus, 2005). Another Stream 3 model is the so-called “Trait” model developed by Petrides and Furnham (2001), which emerged as a derivative of the Bar-On measure from factor-analysis.

Ashkanasy and Daus (2005) recommended strongly against use of Stream 3 measures, because they rely on self-reports (they are measures of perceived self-efficacy rather than emotional skills per se) and because they are largely confounded with personality measures many items overlap with items measuring personality traits such as extraversion). Despite these serious shortcomings, Stream 3 measures continue to be used extensively, both by practitioners and in the academic literature (see O’Boyle, Humphrey, Pollak, Hawver, & Story, 2011).

In Figure 1 below, we illustrate the relationship between the three streams in a space defined in terms of three broad psychological categories: intellectual intelligence, emotional intelligence, and personality.


Figure 1: A taxonomy of measures of emotional intelligence

Figure 1: A taxonomy of measures of emotional intelligence

As the figure indicates, measures of EI on the three Streams are significantly different in terms of their validity as measures of emotional intelligence. Stream 1 measures, which test emotional abilities on actual tasks, strike us as the most accurate measures of emotional intelligence, although they may reflect some contamination from IQ measures and personality measures (Antonakis in Antonakis, Ashkanasy & Dasborough, 2009). We place Stream 1 measures well within the “zone of validity for measurement of emotional intelligence.”

Stream 3 are on our view outside that zone, and appear much closer to personality measures; as we noted earlier, one of these measures (Petrides & Furnham, 2001) is explicitly referred to as a “trait” measure, so we place it squarely in the “zone of validity for measurement of social skills and personality”. The same holds for another Stream 3 self-report scale (see Palmer, Stough, Harmer, & Gignac, 2009), which was even developed from a factor analysis of personality scale items.

Stream 2 measures straddle the boundary between validity for measurement of emotional intelligence and social skills/personality. Also represented in the figure are IQ, self-report measures of social self-efficacy (e.g., Goleman, 1998; Lowe & Cautela, 1978), and self-report personality measures (e.g., “Big Five”, McCrae & Costa, 1987), which lie, respectively, in the “zone of validity for measurement of intellectual intelligence” and in the “zone of validity for measures of social skills/personality”.

In Defense of Emotional Intelligence

Soon after its popularization, Davies, Stankov, and Roberts (1998) published the first substantial academic criticism of the construct we are aware of, attacking its ontological and epistemological integrity, and noting in particular that self-report measures of the construct overlapped with measures of personality. The most vehement attacks, however, came from the field of industrial and organizational psychology, where noted authors (Landy, 2005; Locke, 2005) further emphasized that self-report measures of emotional intelligence tend to be confounded with personality measures, and took issue with some of the admittedly exaggerated claims made by Goleman (1995) and other popularizers of EI.

Other critics, for example Antonakis (in Antonakis, et al., 2009), have criticized the emotional intelligence construct at a deeper level, claiming that its purported predictive validity with regard to leadership effectiveness is confounded with personality (self-report measures) or intelligence (ability measures). Antonakis argues with particular reference to leadership studies that all the claims that emotional intelligence is a predictor of leadership acumen can be explained in terms of more established theories of personality and intelligence.

We acknowledge that there is much truth in many of the concerns regarding emotional intelligence (e.g., see Jordan, Ashton-James, and Ashkanasy, 2006) and in particular the overlap of Stream 3 scales with personality measures. Nonetheless, as we point out in Antonakis et al. (2009), this is not sufficient justification to dismiss the construct out of hand. The problems for EI measures, we think, lie primarily with Stream 3, and not with Streams 1 or 2. Ashkanasy and Daus (2005) argue in particular that emotional intelligence is, after all, just another individual difference variable, where some individuals score high and others score low on a battery of tests. In this regard, given that psychologists traditionally study individual differences, the question becomes one of establishing the construct validity of the measure, not a philosophical argument about the meaning of “intelligence” or whether or not emotional intelligence is really a form of “social intelligence,” as Landy (2005) and Lock (2005) argue. Moreover, given recent evidence regarding the neurological basis of the construct (e.g., Krueger et al., 2009, found a direct relationship between MSCEIT branches and prefrontal cortex substrates), the grounds for claiming that emotional intelligence is a totally invalid construct (cf. Locke, 2005) are fast evaporating.

A Maturing of the Field

Despite the early controversy surrounding the definition of emotional intelligence and its measurement, scholars recently came to some agreement. In 2010, Cary Cherniss initiated a dialogue between scholars representing the various streams in order to clarify the construct. The conclusion reached within this dialogue was that scholars using the Stream 3 approach should either refer to their approach as measurement of personality (e.g., Petrides & Furnham, 2001) or use the label “ESC = Emotional and Social Competencies” rather than the label of emotional intelligence (e.g., see Goleman, 1998). Stream 3 scholars acknowledged that they were examining more than just emotional abilities, and that they were looking more broadly at social skills and emotional skills. It was recommended that only Stream 1 and 2 research (i.e., research based on the ability-based model), should use the label of emotional intelligence (Jordan, Dasborough, Daus, & Ashkanasy, 2010).

Since 2010, we have seen evidence of the maturing of the field through the publication of meta-analyses on emotional intelligence (e.g. Joseph & Newman, 2010; Kong, 2014; O’Boyle et al., 2011). Although these were not all highly supportive, they do demonstrate that the field has now matured to the point where there are now sufficient empirical studies available to settle the debate on the nature and value of emotional intelligence on empirical grounds. Indeed, empirical research on emotional intelligence has also begun to enter the top mainstream journals within the fields of management, organizational psychology, and organizational behavior. Prior to this, it was rare to see any mention of emotional intelligence in the top journals in these fields, and it was usually theoretical articles only (e.g. Huy, 1999; Jordan, Ashkanasy, & Härtel, 2002). Just in the past four years, there have been five studies published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, and one in the Academy of Management Journal. We note that all of these articles are based on Stream 1 measures, with the majority using the MSCEIT as their chosen test of emotional intelligence. (Studies using Stream 3 self-report measures simply do not seem to be published in these top tier journals).

So: What is emerging from this more sophisticated scholarship on EI? We think that recent work on emotional intelligence has firmly established that the construct is a type of cognitive ability applied to the emotion domain (MacCann, Joseph, Newman, & Roberts, 2014). IQ is also a cognitive ability, but EI differs from it in that it is specifically the ability to deal with emotion. This should quell the earlier critics somewhat. For example, in another recent article, Ybarra, Kross, and Sanchez-Burks (2014), in contrast to critics such as Antonakis (in Antonakis et al., 2009), expressed enthusiasm about the future of emotional intelligence, provided well-established principles of psychological processing can be incorporated into measures of EI so as to enhance their predictive validity. Specifically, Ybarra and his colleagues call for new types of EI research that include automatic and deliberate processing of emotional information, motivational principles, and person-situation principles to examine context (similar to Jordan et al., 2010). They conclude with very positive views about the future of research on emotional intelligence. In line with these scholars, we too feel that the future of the field is looking more stable and brighter than ever, and that further progress may be achieved in the future by exploring new approaches (e.g. developing context-dependent measures of emotional intelligence).


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One Response to Reintroducing Emotional Intelligence: What it Is and Where We Stand Now

  1. Jose M. Mestre March 19, 2015 at 7:36 am

    Barbara Leuner (1966) was the first author who mentioned emotional intelligence. I heard that G. W. Payne passed away

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