What is Emotional Intelligence? And How to Develop It

By on November 23, 2020

IQ is not the be-all and end-all. In fact, as a concept, the “Intelligence Quotient” is actually rather controversial. It’s hotly disputed whether IQ represents a useful or comprehensive measure of cognitive ability. But beyond that, it may be that fluid intelligence is overly valued to begin with; other concepts, like emotional intelligence, could be even more important!

IQ fails to predict the ability to socialise or to get on well with others – undoubtedly a highly important ability if we hope to succeed in life. This is where an emotional quotient (EQ), or measure of emotional intelligence (EI), steps in to pick up the slack.

Why EQ is Game Changing for Success, Performance, and More

In many cases, our ability to interact with others and manage our own mental states is what will most determine our success. Learning the nuances of communication, empathy, and human behavior can be nothing short of game-changing. 

Emotional intelligence and success

Like many people, I love the film Limitless (and the book “The Dark Fields”) for demonstrating what someone operating at their full mental capacity might look like (regardless of the pseudoscientific justification). But a lot of what makes Eddie Mora successful in that story is his ability to persuade people and to get them to listen to him. Amazing maths doesn’t typically come into it!

If you really want to be “limitless,” EQ plays a huge role. At least according to this depiction.

If you really want to be “limitless,” EQ plays a huge role.

The sequel doubles down on this: many characters that take NZT describe how they have a magnetic effect on others. How people seem to want to please them.

In business, this is extremely important: so many people are promoted to leadership roles owing to their loyalty to the company and technical skill, with little regard for the people skills they need to succeed in a managerial position. Something as simple as choosing your words carefully when asking someone to complete a task can be the difference between that person happily following instructions, rebelling against your request, or feeling underappreciated and victimized.

The difference may come down to a single word.

EQ: What the World Needs Right Now?

This becomes even more apparent as a parent, where life is often a delicate balancing act of saying the right thing so as not to cause your toddler to explode in a fit of rage. EQ can help improve all kinds of relationships too, whether with friends or romantic partners. It makes us more understanding, more empathetic, and better at bringing the best out of people.

It makes us more understanding, more empathetic, and better at bringing the best out of people.

To get even geekier than usual, the reason that Optimus Prime has always been such an inspiring character is that he is kind to his Autobots (a trait entirely missing from the Bay movies). This set him apart from other Saturday morning cartoon characters and made him uniquely inspiring for an entire generation.

Poor management and bad politics can often be put down to a lack of EQ. It is arguably this (among other things) that has led to many of the problems we are experiencing across the world right now.

Emotional Intelligence for Business and Sales

But it’s not all compassion and leadership!

In sales, emotional intelligence truly comes into its own. It’s well-known in business that people spend money based on emotions more than logic. The ability to sell, therefore, often comes down to an ability to create an emotional response in someone: to generate interest and desire, to sell a “value proposition.” This is true whether you are selling face-to-face, or designing an ad campaign.

People spend money based on emotions more than logic.

MI5/CIA agents are also highly dependent on their “soft skills” in order to blend in and extract information from targets. Ninjas likewise understood the importance of this, seeing it as being as vital to their training as their martial arts.  

See also: CIA/MI6 Soft Skills – Training Like Bond and Bourne

“Weaponizing” EQ this way has been described as the “dark side” of emotional intelligence (check out a really interesting article here). Studies show that Machiavellianism is inversely correlated with EI (study), but when the two are combined… it’s pretty deadly (study).

See also: Psychological Warfare: Negotiation Techniques


EQ can also sometimes encompass the ability to recognize your own emotional states, to react to them properly, and thereby to react more appropriately in the context. 

This gives EQ an even broader potential application. EQ, therefore, becomes crucial for success in sports where staying calm and focussed is key. This is a central area of interest for sports psychologists.


But, just like IQ, emotional intelligence is still a contested concept that is tough to define and even tougher to develop. In this post, we’ll break it down, and see how we might work on our own empathy and emotional control.

The Emotional Quotient – An Overview 

The first official use of the term “emotional intelligence” is found in A Study of Emotion: Developing Emotional Intelligence which is a doctoral thesis by Dr Wayne Payne from 1987 (though it had been mentioned in several other papers prior to that). The concept rose to prominence, however, following the publication of the book Emotional Intelligence – Why it Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Jay Goleman in 1995. 

While Goleman’s book was popular, it was essentially a “self-help” title rather than an academic discussion. Subsequently, the subject has been picked up by others, though there is no wide consensus on how EI should be measured. 

What we have are three “models” used to define EI/EQ, each using different instruments for measurement and emphasizing different skills and traits.

These models are as follows: 

Models of Emotional Intelligence

The Ability Model

The ability model was proposed by Salovey and Mayer and attempts to measure EI in a similar manner to other “intelligences.” They attempt to measure the ability to:

  • Perceive emotions
  • Use emotions
  • Understand emotions
  • Manage emotions

The ability model lends itself naturally to various forms of measurement, but is criticised for being a poor predictor for performance in the workplace/academic settings. 

That said, the ability model is arguably the “broadest” system currently in use, and takes an approach most similar to IQ testing. The principle measure of EI by this model is the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, which uses a similar “statistically average response” to gauge performance. 

The Trait Model

Whereas the ability model looks at the capabilities of the subject being measure, the trait model works by looking at “emotional self-perceptions at the lower levels of personality” (to quote the author Konstantin Vasily Petrides). In short, this definition works by looking at a person’s disposition and perceptions of their own abilities; in a more similar manner to a conventional personality test. Essentially, this model views emotional intelligence as a personality trait ratherthan a facet of intelligence.  

The Mixed Model

The mixed model is a model proposed by Daniel Goleman that specifically focusses on the skills that drive leadership ability. Goleman defines these skills as: 

  • Self-awareness (the accurate assessment and recognition of one’s own emotions)  
  • Self-regulation (the control of “disruptive emotions”) 
  • Social-skill (the ability to persuade and motivate others) 
  • Empathy (the ability to consider and understand the emotions of others) 
  • Motivation (a desire to achieve “for the sake of achievement”) 

Goleman describes these traits, which present a mixture of both personality traits and abilities (with a leaning towards the latter), as being learned rather than innate. The Mixed Model provides a useful measure for business and can be an effective predictor of certain aspects of performance.

However, it has also been criticised by many as being “pop psychology.” Its focussed nature makes it relatively unhelpful as a measure of emotional intelligence by-and-large. Many would not describe the “desire to achieve for the sake of achievement” as a pre-requisite for emotional intelligence. This is merelya useful personality trait for those with a goal-oriented mindset. 

Limitations of Current EQ Models

In terms of the actual measures themselves then, EI has a long way to go. None of the three models is widely accepted as standard or believed to be particularly comprehensive. (The trait model is perhaps the closest.)

You could be great at empathising with others, for example, while being terrible at recognising your own emotions.

Even if you were to score highly on a test of EI that was perfectly designed, this would not necessarily mean you would be highly adept in all areas of emotional intelligence. You could be great at empathising with others, for example, while being terrible at recognising your own emotions. Again though, this is a problem that is true of IQ tests as well. 

For now then, the best way to gauge someone’s emotional intelligence is to spend time with them. Though, paradoxically, this will only help if your own emotional intelligence is good enough to assess theirs!

The Biology of Social Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is at least somewhat modulated by the release of certain neurochemicals. For example, Oxytocin has been linked to the ability to perceive and empathize with negative emotions (study). This is one reason that mothers increase the production of oxytocin!

Conversely, emotionally intelligence is inversely correlated with testosterone. In one fascinating study a single dose of testosterone given to a woman impaired her ability to read emotions (study)!

See also: The Testosterone Advantage – How to Tap Into the Effects of Testosterone in the Brain

We know that testosterone and its effects on the brain can be modified through lifestyle and behavioural changes. This is one way to fine-tune emotional sensitivity… at a cost! And again, this is why testosterone levels in men drop almost as soon as they have children!

What is emotional intelligence?

Keep in mind the complex interplay of effects going on here. Having a child can lower my testosterone levels and thereby also reduce muscle mass!

The Need for Nuance

There’s a difference between understanding the emotions of others and being able to control your own emotions. And there’s a difference between intuitively understanding someone’s facial expressions vs logically working out what they are feeling.

Thus a slightly less sympathetic “alpha male” capable of rising above their own emotions may be a slightly better leader than someone very sensitive but emotionally unstable. This is especially true as many men feel the urge to line up behind a charismatic alpha male. BUT the other question is whether a more emotionally-stunted individual would ultimately lead in a way that was best for the group as a whole.

This is where a far more nuanced approach to social intelligence is required.

Mirror Neurons and Spindle Cells

Those with an interest in neuroscience may be wondering what the role of mirror neurons might be. These are specialized brain cells that fire in response to actions and behaviors perceived in others. This can drastically affect the way we perceive emotions in others and how we interact socially. If we see someone take up an aggressive stance this can activate neurons that simulate that position. This triggers the associated emotional response.

Mirror neurons and brain plasticity

I’ve discussed how we potentially internalize thoughts and emotions by “playing out” those things in a kind of virtual reality. This is called embodied cognition. Through mirror neurons, we can almost literally step into the shoes of another person to experience how they must be feeling.

See also: Embodied Cognition – You Think With Your Body

Psychologist extraordinaire, V.S. Ramachandran, describes mirror neurons as the “basis of civilization.”

Spindle Cells and Resonance

Related are “spindle cells.” These are brain cells with a large body size (around four times larger than other cells) and longer branches for reaching other neurons. Spindle cells are thus capable of communicating extremely quicker to transmit thoughts and emotions. Their role appears to be in creating a “social guidance” system but they also help with other emotionally-guided rapid decisions. When you intuit what someone is thinking, or “go with your gut”… you are actually “going with your spindle system.”

Author and lecturer, Annie McKee, refers to the ability to recognize the emotions of others and to make snap decisions based on small indicators as “resonance.” This is a largely unconscious process.

Related are “Oscillators.” These are neurons that help to coordinate movement between two or more people. That’s how people moving in to kiss can easily and seamlessly avoid smacking noses and clashing teeth.

At least if you’re not 15-year-old me!

Check out this great article over at Harvard Business Review for more.

Resonance also partly explains why some people are so warmly received by others before they even do anything else. Small bodylanguage cues and facial expressions resonate with others and can create the “reality distortion field” that some of the world’s most engaging and influential figures are said to possess.

Optimus Prime alpha male traits

How to Train Your Emotional Intelligence 

So, how do you improve your own emotional intelligence?  

Most articles provide suggestions like “remember to listen.” This doesn’t so much train your innate ability to empathise, as remind you what you’re doing wrong. It’s a bit like me telling you to become a bodybuilder by “becoming stronger.” 

Fortunately, there are some more concrete and tangible options available to you. One such option is to practice mindfulness and meditation. This is a form of meditation that involves reflecting on your own thought processes and how they affect your emotional state. Mindfulness meditation requires you to dispassionately detach from these sensations as an observer – both improving your ability to control your own reactions, and to notice emotional changes as they occur.

See also: Different Types of Meditation for Focus, Control, and Creativity

We can also train our interoception, which is our ability to recognize our own bodily sensations. This is a topic I’ll be coming back to later this week so stay tuned – as it is highly relevant. So much of emotion is regulated by physiological processes and our ability to recognize when we are tired, hungry, or unwell is key to correctly interpreting our emotions (and thus those of others).

Immersion is Key

More important though, is simple immersion. The body has countless mechanisms like spindle cells, oscillators, mirror neurons, and hormonal changes that are designed to help us adapt to our social circumstances.

By simply spending more time with others and being highly attuned to the situation, you can learn to intuitively pick up on their social cues and signs. Likewise, you can develop a more detailed and comprehensive theory of mind.

See also: Human Hacking – The Art of Reading Body Language

A great training tool is people watching. Simply observe others and you will slowly learn to internalize their subtle gestures – naturally improving your prediction engine through brain plasticity.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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