Is Emotional Intelligence an intrinsic Trait or an Ability to be cultivated?

Published on February 13, 2013

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to appreciate one’s own emotions while maintaining awareness of others’. There are different components of the EI process to consider. First, the emotional intelligence of perception concerns the ability to recognize emotion cues in their various forms. Are you able to sense, for example that your significant other is anxious to terminate a shopping trip by studying their body language? Can you recognize bewilderment in the face of your teenage child when you help with schoolwork?

The next step in the emotional intelligence process is called Reason. In this phase, you use the emotion that you have identified to make a cognitive decision. During that shopping trip for example, you decide to purchase the blue polyester instead of the warmer red cotton winter jacket because you understand that your significant believes red is too flashy.

Understanding follows in the process of emotional intelligence. The point of this phase is that you are able to understand the reason for another’s emotions. Is your teenage child ‘forgetting’ about the math tutoring session together because of a power struggle with you, or because they feel inadequate about their math skills.

Management of emotions refers to your reaction to what you have understood about a situation. Do you decide, for instance, to punish the child for repeatedly missing tutoring sessions, or prioritize thinking of ways the teenager more comfortable with mathematics?

The study, titled Developmental correlates of emotional intelligence: Temperament, family environment, and childhood trauma and was performed by Kathryn Jane Gardener, et al at of University of Central Lancashire, Psychology, Lancashire, Preston, and Edge Hill University, Department of Social and Psychological Sciences, Ormskirk, UK. It was published in volume 63 of the Australian Journal of Psychology in 2011. According to the authors, the study had three aims:

  1. To test the hypothesis that temperament is more strongly related to trait than ability EI.
  2. To explore whether environmental factors (family environment and childhood trauma) are more strongly associated with ability than trait EI.
  3. To explore significant interactions between temperamental and environmental factors.

Temperament has subject to many theories and definitions. A few elements that make up the characteristic are:

Activity - a measure of physical energy assigned by determining if the child is constantly moving or performing some other activity.

Regularity - concerned with the predictability of eating, sleeping and bowel movement routines and other biological functions.

Initial reaction - refers to a person’s response to novel situations, environments or people.

Adaptability - an extension of the initial reaction, it is a measure of how a person reacts to change over the long term.

Intensity - a measure of a person’s response, i.e. high or low energy.

The Gardener paper tells us “Emotional intelligence (EI) has been conceptualised as an emotion-related cognitive ability involving the ability to perceive, use, understand, and regulate emotion.” Indeed, the researchers’ wording is delicately balanced in that much of the attention focused on emotional intelligence has to do with debate as to whether it is a cognitive trait versus ability. The difference is important because objective performance scores are used to evaluate cognitive traits, self-reporting mechanisms are used to assess ability.

As to childhood trauma affecting ability EI, the study concludes, “children reared in environments where parental conflict is rife, cohesion is low and anger is expressed, are more aggressive… suggesting problems in the learning of adaptive emotion regulation strategies. Abusive environments are especially detrimental to the development of emotion perception, understanding, and regulation.”

On the other hand, is trait EI as difficult to change? “Because trait EI is a lower-order trait,” states the paper, “it can be best understood as a biologically based basic tendency, and its long term development will be little determined by extrinsic paths”

The paper authors claim that their results, although incompletely understood, has real world significance. As a trait, EI is not easily modified, so those looking to improve upon a traumatized child’s EI from such a perspective may be disappointed. The study goes on to say "…interventions to improve the quality of the family environment and interactions with caregivers may have little value."

We would hope that if the trait EI was virtually unchangeable, maybe we would have more success in helping children by approaching EI as an ability. After all, ability is typically influenced greatly by environment. It turns out however, that changing the child’s family environment would not affect the child's EI significantly.

The authors admit that the study has it limitations. As an example, it included only 97 subjects. Another limiting factor is the lopsided gender distribution of the subjects. There were 80 women and only 17 men in the study.

The paper states in its final conclusion, “temperament characteristics were related to trait but not ability EI. Components of family environment and childhood trauma were not significantly related to ability or trait.” I don’t know about you, but I have to admit I was hoping for a different outcome in that emotional intellegence can indeed be cultivated. Perhaps in time, more research can be carried out to shed more light on this topic.

Do you have an opinion? Have I missed anything? Drop us a line. Until next time remember, KEEP THINKING!

Category(s):Abuse / Abuse Survivor Issues, Emotional Intelligence

Written by:

Tony Brown

Tony Brown is a former U.S. Army (Reserve) Medical Officer, and currently completing his studies as an M.D./PhD/MBA candidate, with a research thesis titled, “Pharmacology and the Neurological Correlates of Consciousness.”