What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence describes a person's skills and aptitudes in managing their own internal emotional states and their relationships with others. Developed as a counterpart to intellectual aptitude, emotional intelligence (also known as EQ) encompasses skills like empathy, self-control, and optimism, and has been proposed as a more important predictor of life success than IQ.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is a relatively new concept, but it has quickly become one of the most important topics in psychology and business. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, manage and use emotions so we can communicate with and relate to others effectively and constructively. EQ is a skill that can help us build better relationships, manage stress more effectively and make better decisions.

But where did the concept of emotional intelligence come from and how much research has been done on this topic? In this article, we’ll explore the history of emotional intelligence from its beginnings to the present day and review some of the most popular models of EQ. 

What is Emotional Intelligence? 

The term “emotional intelligence” is defined as “the ability to monitor one's own and other's feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions."

There are several models that look at different dimensions of EQ (we’ve expanded on some of the most popular models below). The most recent model, developed by Truity in 2023, derives five factors of emotional intelligence: 

  1. Self-awareness describes the ability to effectively recognize and identify one's own emotional experiences. People who score higher on this construct are more likely to be highly in tune with their emotions and possess a keen sense of what they’re feeling at any given moment.
  2. Social awareness describes the ability to effectively perceive and understand the emotions of others. People who score higher on this construct are more likely to be highly attuned to nonverbal cues, such as body language and facial expressions, which can provide valuable information about others' emotional states.
  3. Emotional control describes the ability to regulate and manage one's own emotions. People who score higher on this construct are more likely to have a strong sense of control over their emotional experiences and can direct their emotions in ways that serve their goals. 
  4. Empathy is the ability to relate to the emotional experiences of others. People who score higher on this construct are likely to care deeply about how people are feeling and to show sensitivity towards others. 
  5. Emotional well-being describes an individual's overall state of psychological, emotional and social wellness. People who score higher on this construct are likely to have positive attitudes toward life and experience high levels of satisfaction in their day-to-day activities.

The Early Days of Emotional Intelligence 

The concept of emotional intelligence can be traced back to the early 20th century when psychologist Edward Thorndike began to explore what he called social intelligence, or the relationship between intelligence and social skills. In the 1940s, psychologist David Wechsler proposed that intelligence could be defined by non-intellectual factors such as personality traits. 

In the 1950s, psychologist Abraham Maslow, known for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, suggested that there are various ways people can build emotional strengths and improve their ability to manage and control their emotions. 

Howard Gartner published his theory of multiple intelligences in his 1983 book Frames of Mind, where he outlines eight unique types of intelligence, including intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. However, it wasn't until 1985 that the term "emotional intelligence" was first coined by Wayne Payne. In his doctoral dissertation on the subject, Payne argued that EQ was a distinct type of intelligence that was just as important as traditional cognitive intelligence. 

Payne's work was followed by a series of studies by other researchers, including psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer who developed a more comprehensive model of emotional intelligence. 

The 1990s: The Rise of Emotional Intelligence 

While psychologists had been studying the topic for decades, the 1990s saw a surge of public interest in emotional intelligence, thanks in large part to the work of the New York Times journalist Daniel Goleman. Goleman published his best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, in 1995. 

Goleman's book helped to popularize the term "emotional intelligence” and to raise awareness of its importance in relationships and in organizations. It also led to the development of a number of EQ assessment tools, which are now used by businesses, schools and other organizations around the world.

The 2000s: Emotional Intelligence Research Matures

In the 2000s, research on emotional intelligence continued to grow and mature. Researchers began to explore the relationship between EQ and a variety of outcomes, including academic achievement, job performance and leadership effectiveness. 

During this time, psychologist Marc Brackett, a student of John Mayer and the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, developed a measure of EQ designed for use with children and adolescents. 

Some key research findings from this time period include:

  • EQ is a significant predictor of academic achievement and job performance.
  • EQ is more important for success in some occupations than others.
  • EQ can be improved through training and development.

The 2010s and Beyond: Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

In the 2010s, interest in emotional intelligence continued to grow, particularly in the workplace. Businesses began to realize that EQ was an important factor in employee performance and that it could be a valuable tool for leaders. 

As a result, a number of EQ training programs have been developed for organizations. These programs typically focus on helping employees develop their emotional awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills.

Popular Emotional Intelligence Models

Since its inception, a number of different models have been established as reliable metrics for quantifying EQ. Here are some of the most prominent models that have shaped our current understanding of emotional intelligence. 

Schutte Self-Report Emotional Intelligence Test

This assessment was developed from the original research developed by Salovey and Mayer and incorporates a lexical approach that proves more durable across cultures. This model derives six factors of EQ:

  • Positive affect (the ability to find happiness and meaning in life) 
  • Emotion-others
  • Happy emotions
  • Emotions-own
  • Nonverbal emotions 
  • Emotional management 

Swinburne University Emotional Intelligence Test

This assessment was developed by researchers in 2001. They were particularly interested in developing EQ scales that were predictive in the workplace. This model derives five factors of EQ:

  • Emotional recognition and expression 
  • Understanding others’ emotions
  • Emotions direct cognition (how much emotions impact decision-making and problem-solving) 
  • Emotional management
  • Emotional control 

Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire (TEIQue)

This model conceptualizes EQ as a personality trait rather than an ability or a skill. It focuses on how people perceive and express their emotions rather than how they process or use them. This model has also been validated cross-culturally. TEIQue derives four factors of EQ:

  • Well-being
  • Sociability
  • Self-control
  • Emotionality

Bar-On Model of Emotional-Social Intelligence (ESI) 

Robert Bar-On developed a comprehensive model of emotional intelligence that includes 15 different dimensions.

  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Empathy
  • Social responsibility
  • Problem-solving
  • Reality testing
  • Impulse control
  • Emotional expression
  • Assertiveness
  • Independence
  • Self-regard
  • Self-actualization
  • Emotional self-awareness
  • Flexibility
  • Stress tolerance
  • Optimism

Mayer and Salovey’s Four-Branch Model of Emotional Intelligence

The Mayer and Salovey developmental model of emotional intelligence comprises four branches:

  • The ability to perceive emotions in oneself and others accurately.
  • The ability to use emotions to facilitate thinking.
  • The ability to understand emotions, emotional language and the signals conveyed by
  • emotions.
  • The ability to manage emotions so as to attain specific goals.

Truity’s Five-Factor Model of Emotional Intelligence

In 2023, Truity developed a validated emotional intelligence model and test (that you can take here), which pinpoints a person’s top EQ strengths. The methodology was based on existing EQ models and data gathered by Truity. Truity’s model focuses on five factors of emotional intelligence:

  • Self-awareness
  • Social awareness
  • Emotional control
  • Empathy
  • Emotional well-being

While all EQ models have advantages and disadvantages, Truity’s model stands out as the company was able to leverage scale in a way that is typically not available in traditional academic research by using data from over 150,000 participants. By contrast, other models are typically validated on the order of 1,000 respondents. The Five-Factor EQ Model also emphasizes that most people do not have high or low EQ, but rather score high or low in some factors.

Megan Malone
Megan holds an MS in organizational psychology and manages content and brand marketing at Truity. She is passionate about helping people improve their relationships, careers, and quality of life using personality psychology. An INFJ and Enneagram 9, Megan lives quietly in Fort Worth, Texas with her husband and two pups. You can chat with her on Twitter @meganmmalone.