What is Emotional Intelligence and Can It Be Improved?

By Matthew Wong and Danielle Currin

We’ve all had moments where we’ve been uncertain of our own emotions, much less someone else’s. On the other hand, we’ve all experienced glimpses of what it’s like to genuinely understand ourselves and others. Is there a separate aspect of intelligence that dictates these interactions? Furthermore, are these abilities to identify and comprehend emotion static and innate, or are they malleable and subject to development? 

While the debate is ongoing, there are clues that can help clarify these vital questions. Early on, much of the controversy was concerned with whether emotional intelligence (EI) was a toolkit of particular emotional abilities (ability models) or simply a grouping of emotional personality traits (trait models) (Slaski & Cartwright, 2003). Eventually, a general consensus was reached on what criteria form the basis of EI, known as the Four Branch model: perceiving (of oneself and others), understanding, use, and managing of emotions (Bar-On, 1997; Goleman, 1995; Mayer & Salovey, 1997). Let’s break these down: perceiving can be understood as having an awareness for – often non-verbal – emotion, being able to notice internal feelings or emotions being felt by others. Understanding is a deeper form of awareness, being able to label and comprehend the underlying messages communicated by emotion. Using is the most controversial branch of the four, as there’s concern over whether or not this skill is truly affectable, but it can be thought of as how emotions guide our cognition in order to promote certain thoughts and behaviors. Lastly is managing, the skill that requires a grasp of the previous three so that it can be effectively utilized. For one to exert control over their emotions they must first have an awareness of what’s being felt as well as an understanding for what their emotions are conveying. 

As research on EI continued, some studies began separating the four criteria from emotional self-efficacy (ESE), or the belief in one’s emotional capabilities, in order to account for self-perceptions and dispositions that were unexplained by EI alone. With that said, it’s apparent how valuable each of these facets are when interacting with ourselves and others. Their interplay results in an experience greater than the sum of its parts, accounting for the extreme diversity in communication and understanding between individuals. For example, imagine trying to empathize without awareness of what other people are feeling, or to express an emotion without strong emotion management. You can begin to imagine the consequences of low EI. Higher levels of EI and ESE have been associated with work efficacy, leadership skills, academic achievement, and overall well-being (Bastian et al., 2005; MacCann et al., 2011). Mathews et al. (2002) sum it up aptly, describing how this axis of intellect can transcend the traditional values of socio-economic status and educational experience to allow for greater life opportunities that concern fields more deeply rooted in social experiences.

While we’ve touched on what EI is and why it’s important, we’ve yet to tackle the idea of whether or not it’s malleable. According to Bar-On (1997), EI continues to develop as we age and therefore signals an opportunity for growth, unlike IQ which is relatively stable throughout our lifetime. But is there evidence that we can improve EI through training? In order for any EI training regiment to be worthwhile, its programming needs to be based in evidenced scientific theory, which brings us to the work of Nelis et al. (2009). Nelis and his team designed a study for use with undergraduates, consisting of four once-weekly classes, each lasting two and a half hours. These sessions, which were designed to train participants in the Four Branches, made use of lectures, role plays, discussions, and assigned readings. Progress was determined using standardized scales for EI (MSCEIT) and ESE (ESE Scale). The MSCEIT generated scores for each of the four facets described earlier, allowing researchers to investigate changes to each facet separately, while the ESE Scale could be subscaled to determine emotional confidence relating to oneself or others, independently. Significant improvements were found in the “perceiving” and “managing” facets of EI, even six months later, while “understanding” was unchanged and “using” was unmeasured. 

Dacre Pool & Qualter (2012) sought to replicate these findings and employed a similar experimental model with two key differences. First, it was taught over the course of eleven weeks rather than four, allowing ample time for growth. Second and more importantly, this study included a control group of students in similar class schedules, this EI elective course excluded. Such a change allowed for more robust causal relations to be found now that they had a comparison group. They found similar significant improvements, relative to the control group, in managing emotion, but where Nelis found no change in understanding emotion, Dacre Pool and Qualter found a significant positive change. However, their results for perceiving and using emotion were not significantly affected by this new intervention. This difference in results is particularly exciting due to the implications it has regarding future research directions. It raises questions surrounding how many facets of EI can be trained at a time, what environments nurture different aspects of EI, whether each branch has its own unique learning structure, if EI is multilayered, and more.  Such findings provide a solid foundation for developing more formalized methods of improving EI. However, there is much work left to be done before any definitive program can be advocated for.

So what does this all mean? Recently, Hodzic et al. (2018) conducted a meta-analysis on the efficacy of these EI training interventions. Across 24 studies, they found a moderate effect size for the effectiveness of EI training, meaning that these results are indeed significant. Furthermore, the effects were stronger for studies based in ability models (like the four branch model) likely due to their stronger theoretical roots. Though, the most interesting idea presented in their discussion was the notion of differing operating levels for EI. Considering the fledgeling nature of this field, research is only beginning to touch upon the base operating level for EI: declarative knowledge. This shallow level only concerns the more factual nature of emotion rather than the deeper complexities that govern actually making use of these skills. Such a perspective shift puts the prior findings into context and reaffirms the wealth of information left to uncover in this field.

Overall, there’s a growing body of work within this field that supports the existence and importance of EI. However, this network of perceiving, understanding, using, and managing emotion has often been overlooked when it comes to our ability to develop it. Preliminary intervention studies have found sometimes-contradictory evidence that certain aspects of EI are affectable to some extent, making this an area that certainly merits further study. This is especially true when one considers the implications of improved EI in both a professional and personal context. As our understanding of EI develops, there may one day be an education system that prioritizes emotional well-being as well as academic well-being.


Bar-On, R. (1997) The Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i): A Test of Emotional Intelligence, Toronto, Canada, Multi-Health Systems.

Bastian, V. A., Burns, N. R., & Nettelbeck, T. (2005). Emotional intelligence predicts lifeskills, but not as well as personality and cognitive abilities. Personality and Individual Differences, 39, 135–1145,doi:10.1016/j.paid.2005.04.006.

Dacre Pool, L., & Qualter, P. (2012). Improving emotional intelligence and emotional self-efficacy through a teaching intervention for university students. Learning and Individual Differences, 22(3), 306-312. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2012.01.010

Goleman, D. (1995) Emotional Intelligence, London, Bloomsbury

Hodzic, S., Scharfen, J., Ripoll, P., Holling, H., & Zenasni, F. (2018). How Efficient Are Emotional Intelligence Trainings: A Meta-Analysis. Emotion Review, 10(2), 138–148. https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073917708613

MacCann, C., Fogarty, G. J., Zeidner, M., & Roberts, R. D. (2011). Coping mediates the relationship between emotional intelligence (EI) and academic achievement. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 36, 60–70, doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych.2010.11.002

Mayer, J. D., & Salovey, P. (1997). What is emotional intelligence? In P. Salovey, & D. Sluyter (Eds.), Emotional development and emotional intelligence: Implications for educators (pp. 3–31). New York: Basic Books.

Nelis, D., Quoidbach, J., Mikolajczak, M., & Hansenne, M. (2009). Increasing emotional intelligence: (How) is it possible? Personality and Individual Differences, 47, 36–41, doi:10.1016/j.paid2009.01.046.