A History of Emotional Intelligence
Updated: Dec 19, 2018
Why Most Definitions of Emotional Intelligence Leave Much To Be Desired
Everybody talks about emotional intelligence, and no one does anything to define it. The Harvard Business Review, Forbes, The Huffington Post, and Psychology Today routinely write about Emotional Intelligence (EI), and there is even a whole school dedicated to promoting it.
But beyond a vague notion of somehow being good at emotions, what does it really mean to be "emotionally intelligent"? And relatedly, what should it mean?
To start off, let's see what an average person might think of EI. A contributing editor at Inc.com writes:
"For years, I've heard that EQ is about an ability to read people — to pick up on body language, to assess a situation and read feelings, to display a warmth and emotional connection that sets you apart from others, to smile more or shake hands more vigorously. It's almost always defined as an ability to pick up on non-verbal cues and "sense" when people are frustrated or happy or sad...and that's it."
Though this may be a great description of EI, it's not written in academic language. Don't worry, though, because the academic researchers Mayer, Salovey and Caruso offer the following:
"Emotional Intelligence includes the ability to engage in sophisticated information processing about one’s own and others’ emotions and the ability to use this information as a guide to thinking and behavior. That is, individuals high in emotional intelligence pay attention to, use, understand, and manage emotions, and these skills serve adaptive functions that potentially beneﬁt themselves and others." 
However, these are far from the only definitions. EI has been defined multiple times, and some definitions leave more to be desired than others.
For instance, one problem with Mayer, Salovey and Caruso's (MSC) definition is that you can't will yourself to feel any particular way. Emotions are (by and large) unwilled, non-intentional reactions to what you perceive to be happening in the world. 
The idea that you can "use" emotions more or less effectively is to see the feelings only for their function and utility (instead of, you know, how they feel).
Their definition is akin to saying that musicianship is the ability to use, understand, and manage musical instruments well. Not wrong, technically true, but missing something vital.
By their definition, all actors would automatically qualify as emotionally intelligent, because actors "pay attention to, use, understand and manage emotions" in an adaptive way which benefits them. Are Hollywood and Brooklyn playhouses, sets, and cafes not the EI capitals of the world?
More generally, the definition doesn't seem able to separate out high-EI artists/creatives from low-EI artists/creatives, even though we can do it on some level when understanding this sentence.
I, for one, and not convinced that the MSC definition should be considered the final word on the subject. So let's take a trip through history, and see what we find.
In the (Implicit) Beginning
Though Emotional Intelligence is sometimes presented as a new idea, scholars and writers have implicitly used a concept somewhat similar to "Emotional Intelligence" since the time of the ancient Greeks and beyond.
Here are some concrete examples:
Some parts of Epictetus' Enchiridion are informed by a notion that some people had different, and possibly more useful emotional reactions to what they perceived than others. Specifically, in the fifth section, Epictetus writes "An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself."
In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote "...anyone can get angry — that is easy — or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy." Once again, we see a reference to how "having the right emotions" is deemed to be good.
The Tao Te Ching, ostensibly written by Lao-Tzu before he left known civilization to die in the desert, is a guide to living in harmony with the world, other people, and with yourself. It focuses on a philosophy of being authentic and not letting "ego" get in the way. While its main focus is not on emotional intelligence, there are multiple passages that encourage people to be compassionate and behave and act as if they were emotionally intelligent.
Specifically, one Tao Te Ching passage reads "...Therefore the good person is the bad person's teacher. And the bad person is the good person's resource. Not to value the teacher, not to love the resource, causes great confusion even for the intelligent." While not advice you hear on your everyday motivation blog, it comes from an emotionally intelligent place. I say that because it is exactly the kind of thing Dr. Marshall Rosenberg got at with his approach to what he called Non-Violent Communication. His life's work is centered on the emotionally intelligent idea that it is easier to love people — even if they are "bad" — if you can hear and understand their feelings and needs that inform what they happen to say or do. 
Lastly, many behavioral aspects of moral codes are strategies to get people to behave in ways as if they were emotionally intelligent (including avoiding stimulating discomfort and pain in others) according to the culture at the time. From an EI point of view, "You shall not covet your neighbor's house, wife, or property" implies that certain emotions (including jealousy) are somehow incorrect, and if you are doing things properly, you are "supposed" to have the right ones.
These implicit notions seem to be a combination of what we today know as "emotional intelligence" and "maturity." For better or for worse, the common ways of defining and measuring EI don't explicitly take maturity into account. But I'm jumping the gun a bit, because we see the earliest version of something like the modern version of EI around the start of the 20th century.
An Immaculate Conception?
For all intents and purposes, the history of EI starts with the modern conception of "intelligence." Around the end of the 19th century, Charles Spearman starts modeling students' test performance as the product of two factors — a specific factor that varies with each subject, and a general factor that should remain the same across all tests. One of Spearman's breakthroughs was in inventing Factor Analysis, or the math that enables him to test his model.
He calls the general factor g, which will eventually be known as IQ. 
Charles Spearman around 1900.
This discovery prompts much excitement in psychological circles. What exactly is the g factor? What can it explain about the shape of one's life? How is it related to parental pressure expressed via nagging and expectations to do well in school if you controlled for kids' sensitivity to such things? And could you make any money off of g if you yelled loudly enough about it? (There is plenty to say about IQ, which I plan on doing at a later date. It's out of scope for this post/mini-essay.)
Roughly ten years after Spearman publishes the first paper on Factor Analysis, his student Edward Webb researches a "General Factor of Character." Probably due in part to the hubbub surrounding g at the time, Webb starts off by writing "'Character' is thus, for our purpose, the sum of all personal qualities which are not distinctly intellectual."  Or in other words "Brb, I'm just going to go measure everything else, no big deal."
Webb arranges for groups of young men to be rated by their peers in terms of 39 different qualities. The ones that touch on emotions include:
1. General tendency to be cheerful (as opposed to being depressed and low-spirited).
2. Tendency to quick oscillation between cheerfulness and depression (as opposed to permanence of mood).
3. Occasional liability to extreme depression.
4. Readiness to become angry.
5. Readiness to recover from anger.
6. Occasional liability to extreme anger.
Webb also looked at personality traits, moral development, habits, moods, and athletic build (or what he called "Soundness of Bodily Constitution"). Lo and behold, Webb found evidence for a second general factor relating to everything he measured, which he called w, or "consistency of action resulting from deliberate volition, or will."
Clearly, w is much more extensive than anything we currently call "Emotional Intelligence." But Webb was asking questions that covered something like EI, using the math that gave rise to the notion of "intelligence" to look for something he thought might be just as fruitful.
However, Webb's research languished in the dark, outshone by the research on intelligence.
We Androids Dream of Rational Sheep
Over the next 50 or so years, American culture (and psychological research) increasingly comes to rely on the concept of 'intelligence" as well as intelligence's soulless cousin, standardized testing.
IQ tests are lobbed en-mass at US soldiers for the first time in WWII. The Fountainhead is published in 1943. Game theory, used to mathematically predict behavior (by ignoring feelings and focusing on "utility") is invented in 1944, and further developed in the 50s. The cost of computers and business machines falls, and large companies start to use them.
These trends all helped induce a cultural shift towards what I can only call "50's IBM rationality" — feelings were out, cold hard ideas were in. Salvation can be found in logic, rationality, certainty, first principles, and computers.
Tragically, people continue to assume that emotions can be misleading and can compromise the integrity of the decisions they make. (I'm speculating here, but its possible this assumption may have been informed by observing veterans operating with untreated PTSD at the time.)
Kurt Vonnegut captures this mentality in his 1951 debut novel Player Piano, a dystopian novel where the society is run by an elite upper class of managers and engineers. Donald Fagen would go on to do something similar with his song IGY, told from the point of view of a 50's IBM-rational optimist.
The 60's counter-culture movement was partially a backlash against 50's IBM-rationality.  It promotes love, music, Zen Buddhism, Jazz, and LSD, as part of a) a move towards freedom of expression and b) as tools to access new (or buried) emotional states and/or one's "real self."
Star Trek is launched in 1966, and the character of Spock helps people relate to emotionally unavailable 50's IBM rationality types.
You may be tempted to think about 50's IBM rationality as "left-brain" and the 60's counter-culture movement as "right-brain," but it turns out these labels don't correspond to reality that well. Instead of "left-brain vs. right-brain" it is more accurate to say something like "half-brain vs. full-brain." 
Against this backdrop Michael Beldoch authors Sensitivity to Emotional Expression in Three Modes of Communicating," a paper that contains the earliest explicit reference to the phrase "emotional intelligence." In it, he writes "Perhaps, like intelligence, emotional sensitivity might be characterized by a general factor which operated in a variety of media, as Spearman's g seems to account for some part of the variance in most intellectual tasks." (If you are curious about the date, this paper was published sometime around 1964.)
You, being the savvy reader that you are, have no doubt noticed that this is different from "having the right emotions" or any notion of "maturity." But for practical purposes, Beldoch's paper doesn't matter too much, because very few people outside (and inside) of academia read that paper at the time. Just like with Webb's idea, not much was done with it. Unlike Webb's idea, Beldoch's didn't completely die out.
For instance, it crops up in Wanye Panye's 1983 PhD thesis, wherein EI is defined as how one relates to the emotions one feels. Then, additional models of EI are put forward in the early 90s, which inform the early version of the Mayer, Savoley and Caruso definition that I wrote about at the beginning of this post.
Yet because the idea of EI wasn't mainstream, everything up until this point is best viewed as a precursor to what happened next.
The War of the Best Sellers
The phrase "emotional intelligence" came into public consciousness during the mid-nineties IQ panic. Around 1994, the book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life caused many Americans to suffer a bout of insecurity regarding their self-worth. This book argued that a person’s IQ was a better predictor of success in life than parental socioeconomic status, effort, and total number of pet rocks kept alive.
The Bell Curve spilled a lot of ink trying to convince people that the "Black-White IQ gap" was unchangeable. By extension, IQ couldn't be changed, and people were doomed by something out of their control but still their responsibility. No matter how hard they tried or what they did, the book argued, their fate was already sealed by their IQ and their genes that "gave rise to it." 
(How far we've come from Spearman, who held that the point of education was to develop individuals' skills and talents, and that g had no place in the classroom.)
Many people didn’t react well to the message. Just in the nick of time, Daniel Goleman, then a science writer for the New York Times, wrote Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ. He was inspired by reading some of Mayer and Savoley's papers.
Goleman posited that a different type of “intelligence,” which happened to under one’s control, actually determined one’s fate. A boss with a lower IQ but higher emotional intelligence than her or his direct reports could rest assured: with high EI, they would still be in a good place to be managing those pesky young people with hip, higher IQs.
Thus in one fell swoop all of America’s insecure middle managers felt relieved for a decade and a half. But just as they got lured into a false sense of complacency, MILLENIALS started popping up everywhere, and then the entirety of western civilization was forever burdened with the triple scourge of chipped avocado on toast, filtered Instagram photos of chia seed soap, and bougie probiotic smoothies.
Millennials can't even make Avo Toast properly these days.
When I was young, avocados were greener, toast more wholesome, and people less snooze-inducing.
Used via Fair Use from The Food Network
I mentioned this above, but it's worth repeating: the focus of “Emotional Intelligence” was on finding a new kind of intelligence. A quest, on some level, for a new general factor that wasn't g and more focused than w, but without the whole scientific inquiry bit to guide the thinking.
What We Talk About When We Talk About EI
It turns out that Goleman defines EI not via a measure or set of measures, not in terms of a general factor, not using the kind of rigor found in legal contracts, but over the course of many chapters.
This is important because if you can’t measure a concept, you are likely working with a metaphor.  Tech founders and people learning to code learn a similar lesson: the code for a piece of software or an app is just an extremely precise description of what they had abstractly envisioned.
But precision is not the same thing as accuracy — you can still be off target even when you are working with a precise concept. In fact, one thing I've observed is that people tend to confuse the effort that goes into making something precise for the effort of making sure they are on target. It's the difference between goal-pursuit and goal-selection. The latter is harder than the former, even though that's not where we put our emphasis.
What this means is that the modern footing underpinning "emotional intelligence" is shaky. There are no references to any sort of factors general, and it is easy to poke holes in the existing definitions.
Goleman originally conceived of EI as encompassing six related domains:
1. "Self-awareness – the ability to know one's emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and goals and recognize their impact on others while using gut feelings to guide decisions.
2. Self-regulation – involves controlling or redirecting one's disruptive emotions and impulses and adapting to changing circumstances.
3. Social skill – managing relationships to move people in the desired direction
4. Empathy – considering other people's feelings especially when making decisions
5. Motivation – being driven to achieve for the sake of achievement"
Even though the intention here is great, this definition is lacking.
I'm not saying that Self-awareness, Self-regulation, Social Skill, Empathy, and Motivation should be swept aside. These are important, and I wish them on everyone. But the devil is in the details. "Being driven to achieve for the sake of achievement" reads as a neurotic pursuit of "winning." Furthermore, the definitions of "Social Skill" and "Empathy" seem like rather Emotionally Unintelligent definitions! "Managing relationships to move people in the desired direction"? Please. How lonely would you be if you "managed" all of your relationships? And "moving people in the desired direction" could be the product of a person being manipulative, charismatic or inspiring.
The other problem with Goleman's definition is it seems to be all or nothing. Take Jim Jones. He would seem to score highly on #3 and #5, possibly even #2 too. A well-formed definition would be one in which having some of the parts gets you closer to the whole thing. 
As you might imagine, researchers trying to measure this "concept" found that it could be more rigorously defined, and they named their model "Ability-EI."
Ability-EI attempts to treat emotional intelligence as the same thing as normal, academically defined and measured intelligence but in the domain of feelings (except for the entire part about "general factors.")
One of the main measures of Ability-EI (the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, or MSCEIT) consists of both tasks and more traditional multiple choice questions.
Two of the tasks consist of like "identifying the emotions in" photographs of people, and natural scenes. (In other words, it's a projective task, not unlike the Rorschach Inkblots.) Other MSCIET tasks include identifying both "which tactile, taste, and color sensations are reminiscent of specific emotions" and "how emotions change from one state to another. (Sic)"
I don't know about you, but if it's cold out, blueberries always put me in a state of denial, then anger, then bargaining, then depression and then acceptance. Every time. It's sort of uncanny...
On the face of it, these task descriptions seem absurd. You don't need me to tell you this, but a good movie score will dictate how you will experience changing emotional states. But fair is fair; let's take a look at some of the MSCEIT questions.
Here's a sample question from the "identify emotions in the photo" task:
The MSCEIT also contains these examples of brilliant question writing:
1. On a scale from 1-5, where 1 is "useful" and 5 is "not useful"..
"What moods might be helpful when composing a military march? (sic)
A. Anger - 1 2 3 4 5
B. Excitement - 1 2 3 4 5
C. Frustration - 1 2 3 4 5
2. Rashad is usually quite happy at work and things go well for him at home. He thought that he and his coworkers were generally fairly paid and treated well. Today, everyone in his unit received a moderate, across the board increase as part of corporate wide adjustments in salary. Rashad felt ___________.
A. Surprised and shocked
B. Peaceful and quiet
C. Content and elated
D. Humbled and guilty
E. Proud and dominant
Clearly, the correct answers to all three questions involve flipping over desks to express your anger and then setting the test on fire. Or, barring that, writing in "D. Repressed sexual tension mixed with equal parts ennui and sehnsucht" as an alternate answer for each.
All joking aside, all of these questions would be more appropriate in an IQ test. The first two measure a) your ability to guess at what the test is trying to assess, b) your cultural knowledge, and c) your ability to form associations based on (b). As for the third question there is no reason for the answers consist of pairing two nouns other than to make the referent more conceptually complex and therefore require more attention and cognitive ability to get right. (Why "humbled" and "guilty" are paired together remains a mystery.)
Not surprisingly, the MSCEIT received lots of scientific criticism. This lead other researchers to develop a second model, which they called "Trait-EI."
Unlike Ability-EI, Trait-EI is scored like a personality test. Instead of scoring people on a scale from "right" to "wrong," no pattern of scoring is supposed to be better or worse than others. To this end, K.V. Petrides, one the main researchers of Trait-EI writes: "Trait EI is NOT a cognitive ability, it is NOT a skill, and it is NOT a competency." (Source)
So in other words, "Emotional Intelligence" here means nearly the total and exact opposite of what Goleman as well as Mayer, Caruso and Savoley mean by the words "Emotional Intelligence." Given the state of the MSCEIT, maybe this isn't the worst thing in the world. (Except for, you know, the unfortunate "confuse the public while they aren't watching" bit.)
Trait-EI is constructed to rely on a person's self-perception; no bullshit hierarchical stuff about how a picture of pink rocks secretly means the photographer found enlightenment in an ashram last Tuesday and is now nothing but a joyous fount of bliss, but if you don't know that you're screwed.
Unfortunately, though Trait-EI rests on a better foundation than Ability-EI, its definition still leaves much to be desired.
Here’s a sampling of items from one of the main measures of Trait-EI (the tilde means the statement reflects the opposite of high EI):
Expressing my emotions with words is not a problem for me.
~ I often find it difficult to see things from another person’s viewpoint.
On the whole, I’m a highly motivated person.
~I usually find it difficult to regulate my emotions.
~I generally don’t find life enjoyable.
Many times, I can’t figure out what emotion I'm feeling.
~On the whole, I have a gloomy perspective on most things.
~I don’t seem to have any power at all over other people’s feelings.
I believe I’m full of personal strengths.
Hey ma, look! We’ve created a scale that taps into (subclinical) depression by another name. Guess what just gave me a gloomy perspective and temporarily caused life not to be enjoyable? Reading through these items. If “being highly emotionally intelligent” is a way of using different words to describe “not in a state of depression” what’s the point? Having different terms that are secretly the same doesn’t illuminate too much.
Again, I'm not saying that what's measured by the above items is not important (with the exception of the "power over other people's feelings"). Edward Webb did something similar, though he was trying to assess everything that wasn't strictly intellectual.
But these items suggest that trait-EI is just a proxy for something else; namely, whatever is contributing to the respondents' depression or lack thereof.
For this reason, I’m reminded of how easy it is to hide behind the “psychometrics is a difficult word and most people won’t understand it, so throw it at them the moment they start to question you” defense. Yet again, this suggests that the process research use to figure out how to “measure” things could be vastly improved. We've got tools to develop the 'precision' of psychometric measures, but the much harder and much more important part is accuracy.
Note: There is one other popular model of EI. Israeli psychologist Reuven Bar-on attached his concept of emotional-social "competence" to the word "intelligence" in 1997. He wrote "Emotional-social intelligence is a cross- section of interrelated emotional and social competencies, skills and facilitators that determine how effectively we understand and express ourselves, understand others and relate with them, and cope with daily demands." While this sounds Edward Webbish, I could not easily access Bar-on's EI measure, and thus I can't evaluate it properly.
But how do you really feel?
We are left in a curious state. Emotional Intelligence (as used by the ancient writers and thinkers) seems to be important. And yet the most popular and most celebrated definitions are either imprecise, or made by people who seem so overworked they aren't thinking clearly, or perhaps aren't highly emotionally intelligent themselves.
I think that what we are seeing is the result of a few things.
1. Recent researchers and writers haven't tied EI back to some sort of general factor.
2. Both "emotion" and "intelligence" are not nearly as conceptually rigorous as people think they are. Both are concepts I treat with a healthy amount of caution. "Emotional Intelligence" assumes that "emotions" are something separable from conscious experience, that they are a discreet entity from "thinking" and I suspect that this assumption is unwarranted.
3. We lost sight of trying to measure maturity and character, even though these things are implicitly contained in most of the EI definitions I've mentioned here in this post. In fact, it seems likely that "character" portion of emotional intelligence is the most important part!"Having the right feelings" is something you grow into, and only comes with a certain amount of maturity. The thesis of the rest of this blog post is that emotional intelligence has been defined in ways that could be better, in large part due to a conceptual confusion of "intelligence (but as applied to emotions)" and "character."
If I had to guess, I'd assume that EI should be defined as being related to a general factor of interpersonal interaction. But I think you'd quickly find that this general factor would be related to maturity anyways, if any of the stage-based models of personal growth are accurate.
In my previous post, I wrote about how Marshall Rosenberg and Carl Rogers are two of the most emotionally intelligent people known to history. Any halfway decent definition of EI has to be able to pick them out as standing head and shoulders above the rest of us.
A proposal for a better definition of EI
How about this: Emotional Intelligence is a label we apply to the downstream results of a person with a sensitivity for perceiving other people’s experience, being empathic, and being at a relatively later "stage" of growth or maturity.
I think the first two elements speak for themselves. Most definitions miss the third part, which I think is vital. Because EI is as much about having specific, unforced, unwilled emotions that happen automatically as it is about having some sort of skill with feelings. And "having the right kind of reactions" has more to do with one's total orientation towards the world than it does being able to identify facial expressions in photos. For example, take anger. Some people start swearing when the temporarily misplace their keys; others flip over tables to express themselves, and some people get angry when they read about the gross injustices of the modern world.
I mention this because Goleman's definition, Trait-EI, and Ability-EI each implies that some emotions are better than others. I originally found this very off-putting when I read Goleman's book. But it occurs to me now that Goleman may be attempting to describe how people at various stages of growth or development may have certain reactions to the word without a good framework for doing so. Goleman essentially argued that people with better emotions make better employees.
But it isn’t so much that some people just have the better emotions, it’s that having specific emotional reactions are a symptom of being more ‘mature’ or ‘closer to being self-actualizing.’ 
Emotional intelligence has been consistently and woefully under-defined for a while. I hope this will change soon. In the meantime, here are my two recommended takeaways from this blog post.
First, be very skeptical anytime someone presents you with an EI measure. Especially if it doesn't have the words "Ego Development" in the title, or something similar.
Second, the unintentional and intentional components of emotional intelligence can be cultivated by anyone who is willing to grow and look at themselves honestly. May we all grow to be more emotionally intelligent as time goes by.
Thanks for reading! (By the by, this post is a longer and more technical companion to The Type-O Theory of Emotional Intelligence (and Love).)
Endnotes and Citations
 "Emotional Intelligence: New Ability or Eclectic Traits?" John D. Mayer, Peter Salovey and David R. Caruso. American Psychologist, September 2008, Vol. 63, No. 6, pages 503 - 517.
 Whether emotions are 100% automatic is up for debate. You generally don't consciously experience emotions without attending to them, but un-attended-to emotions can still affect you.
 If you are interested reading in the Tao Te Ching, I recommend the Addis and Lombardo translation.
 Plenty of ink has been spilled about IQ, and most presuppose that the tests are right on target. I think this is an assumption that needs to be re-evaluated. One look at the state of the world and the actions of the people in it should make it clear that we haven't figured out what is worth measuring yet. I'm not saying that intelligence is not important, only that we seem to have missed the mark somewhat.
 Character and Intelligence. Edward Webb, 1915. Cambridge University Press. Printed by John Clay.
 The 1960s counter culture was also a backlash against many other things, including racism, sexual mores, and the Vietnam War, which was purposely extended so a few shmucks could win an election and be important enough to have this Very Important sentence written about them.
 Thoughts and feelings are nothing if not intertwined. For a decision-maker to ignore feelings, or discount signals their brain is sending them is rather irrational. This being said, the common exhortation that "you are making an emotional decision" leaves us with what seems like a paradox. However, this has more to do with the decider not being fully aware of why they reasoning the way they are... If you don't know which feelings are influencing your current mental state, you won't be able to reason as effectively.
 As Ned Block has pointed out, the argument that "genes" cause behavior assumes that because genes can be located in at some point along every behavioral causal chain, genes must be the root cause, rather than a common one.
 Take that, Dabrowski! (Kazimierz Dabrowski wrote an interesting, overwhelmingly metaphorical book called "Personality Shaping Through Positive Disintegration." I've been working on a review of this book, which I have tentatively titled "Word Salad and Metaphor Soup.")
 Technically, this property is what would allow a concept to be located with in a conceptual space.
 Note that self-actualizing people may not make for the best employees. They are likely to just as interested in doing their own thing as they are in being exploited by a hierarchical organization.