The idea that we human beings have not only a quotient of cognitive intelligence, our so-called “IQ”, but also a level of emotional intelligence, called either “EQ” (for emotional quotient) or “EI” (emotional intelligence) has been emerging for at least 30 years (Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2004b). It began to be popularised in the 1990s and is now in common parlance in many languages of the world; the term has been used by clerics in all the major religions (Goleman, 2005), as for many it is an intuitively appealing construct. But just what do we mean when we say that a person is, for example, an effective leader because they have “high emotional intelligence”? This blog post defines emotional intelligence and briefly explores its historical development over the past few decades.

What emotional intelligence is

“I feel, therefore I am.” — Amit Abraham (Goodreads, 2016a)

Search for “definition of emotional intelligence” on the internet and the first of 2,670,000 results that come up asserts that it is: “The capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically” (Google, 7 July, 2016).

A more scientific definition was proposed by Mayer & Salovey (2004), who 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 (Mayer et al, 2004bi).

It can be described as the ability to identify, use, understand, and manage one’s own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathise with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict. EI is said to be an ability which allows us to recognise and understand what others are experiencing emotionally. Mostly, this recognition and understanding occurs as a nonverbal process that influences both our inner world of thought and our outer world of interpersonal relationships (Segal, Smith, & Shubin, 2016).

Thus, individuals with high EI can solve a variety of emotion-related problems accurately and quickly, partially through being able to perceive emotions in faces. Such individuals also know how to use emotional episodes in their lives to promote specific types of thinking. They understand, for example, that sadness promotes analytical thought. They realise that angry people can be dangerous and that happiness means people want to join with others (Mayer, 2009).

What emotional intelligence is not

Mayer goes on to explain that, in the popularisation of EI (more on its history in a moment), some journalistic accounts have unfortunately equated it with other personality traits, such as agreeableness, optimism, happiness, calmness, and motivation. Mayer is at pains to say that EI is not those things, and that he and colleague Peter Salovey do not recognise those qualities — while important — as having much to do with intelligence, with emotions, or with emotional intelligence (Mayer, 2009). So how did the concept get started?

A brief history of emotional intelligence

The concept of having a separate intelligence for emotions appears

In 1953, well before people began to think about the idea that emotions and intelligence could intersect, Dorothy Van Ghent noted in her book discussing the English novel that several Jane Austen characters in Pride and Prejudice possessed a high emotional quotient (EQ). In 1966, Barbara Leuner, a German psychoanalyst, suggested that the drug LSD might help women with low emotional intelligence, who she believed had the condition because of early separation from their mothers, which gave rise to more emotional problems than their counterparts had. The first person to use the term “emotional intelligence” in an English language source was Wayne Payne, whose 1986 dissertation employed the term extensively, arguing that emotional awareness was an important component to develop in children (Zeidner, Matthews, & Roberts, 2009).

More closely aligned to its contemporary usage, psychologists Mayer and Salovey introduced the theory of EI, offering the first formulation of the concept and a demonstration of how it might be measured in two 1990 journal articles (Mayer, DiPaolo, & Salovey, 1990a; Salovey & Mayer, 1990b). At this point in the early 1990s, the notion of IQ was viewed without question as the gold standard of excellence in life. In those days the debate raged around whether IQ was set in our genes or acquired through our experience. That was all to change in 1995 when science reporter Daniel Goleman chanced upon Mayer and Salovey’s articles and began to feel “electrified” by the notion that there could be a new way of thinking about the ingredients of life success. Goleman, like Mayer and Salovey, used the phrase “emotional intelligence” to bring together a wide range of s cientific findings, drawing together what had been separate strands of research. Goleman’s work also included other scientific developments, such as the field of neuroscience — in its infancy then — exploring how emotions are regulated in the brain (Goleman, 2005).

The concept of EI takes the world by storm

Goleman published his seminal work, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, in 1995 (Goleman, 1995/1996). At that time, most health professionals had not heard of the concept of EI, even though Mayer and Salovey’s articles had been out for five years. The notion struck a chord with the global reading audience, and in addition to Goleman’s book making the bestseller list, the idea of it came to pervade the world’s collective consciousness in multiple ways. Goleman comments on the wildfire spread of the concept:

“The phrase emotional intelligence, or its casual shorthand EQ, has become ubiquitous, showing up in settings as unlikely as the cartoon strips Dilbert and Zippy the Pinhead and in Roz Chast’s sequential art in The New Yorker. I’ve seen boxes of toys that claim to boost a child’s EQ; lovelorn personal ads sometimes trumpet it in those seeking prospective mates. I once found a quip about EQ printed on a shampoo bottle in my hotel room.

And the concept has spread to the far corners of our planet. EQ has become a word recognized, I’m told, in languages as diverse as German and Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Malay. (Even so, I prefer EI as the English abbreviation for emotional intelligence.) My e-mail inbox often contains queries, from, for example, a doctoral student in Bulgaria, a school teacher in Poland, a college student in Indonesia, a business consultant in South Africa, a management expert in the Sultanate of Oman, an executive in Shanghai. Business students in India read about EI and leadership; a CEO in Argentina recommends the book I later wrote on the topic. I’ve also heard from religious scholars within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism that the concept of EI resonates with outlooks in their own faith” (Goleman, 2005).

Goleman reports feeling most gratified by hearing that educators have embraced EI in the form of what is called “social and emotional learning”, or SEL. In 1995, when Goleman’s book came out, only a few schools had programs teaching emotional intelligence skills to children. Speaking about it ten years later, Goleman described, for example, how in Illinois in the United States, specific learning standards for SEL skills have been established for every grade from kindergarten to the last year of high school. Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan, Korean, the U.K., New Zealand, and Australia all have schools embracing EI, as do some schools in Latin America and Africa. In 2002, UNESCO began a worldwide initiative to promote SEL, sending a statement of ten basic principles for implementing SEL to the ministries of education of 140 countries (Goleman, 2005).

Where programs are trialled, research to measure them cannot be far away. And indeed, a number of attempts have been made to measure the effect of direct instruction on individuals’ ability to display high EI. Some studies have seemed to show great success in this (see review in Cherniss, 2010; Brackett et al, 2011), yet other research has taken the whole idea back to a basic level, questioning whether EI is even a valid construct, and if it is, how it should be thought of and thus measured (Matthews, Zeidner, & Roberts, 2002; Becker, 2003; Pfeiffer, 2001).

Why emotional intelligence matters

The notion of EI was novel to Mayer, Salovey, and Goleman in the 1990s partly because they recognised the unjust hegemony which the measurement of IQ held at the time. They — like you, we imagine — have probably known many people whose intelligence is clearly superior, yet they are not regarded positively. If this statement were not true, words such as “geek” and “nerd” would not have as much power and currency as they do in common parlance. Both slang terms describe socially inadequate types who have singular skills and — in the case of nerds at least, but also in some definitions of geek — stratospheric intellect.

The over-the-top smarts on its own does not buy such individuals satisfying human connection and inner peace. Rather, those qualities are more commonly seen in the case of individuals who have high EI as well. For example, high IQ may help a person get onto a short list of candidates for a plum job, but without EI, that job seeker will fail to impress at interview stage. And this is only the start of implications for EI in everyday life. In short, it would appear that to ask, “Is IQ or EI better to have?” is an inappropriate question. Rather, the two intelligences work complementarily to support a higher quality of life in most slices of it.


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