By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
When it comes to developing the abilities underlying emotional intelligence, it is important to know that, a person’s level of emotional intelligence tends to have a relatively stable baseline across the life span. In other words, it can change, but without deliberate effort, it operates much like a personality trait or metabolism or other generally stable characteristics.
Emotional Intelligence Increases with Age
Emotional intelligence can reflect some combination of early childhood experiences and genetics.
For most people, emotional intelligence does tend to increase with age, with a peak appearing at about age 60. This resembles the increasing trend of crystallized intelligence as we get older.
In the first of several studies to demonstrate this trend, researchers in 2009 asked people, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s, to watch a series of video clips designed to elicit different types of emotions, such as disgust and sadness. They were then told to deliberately try to manipulate how they felt in response to these emotional scenes, either to remain unmoved or to try to find something positive in what they’d seen.
As expected, the older the person was, the better they were at putting the videos in perspective and finding something good in the heartbreaking or disturbing scenes. Younger adults, by contrast, were much better at what the researchers called ‘detached reappraisal’—meaning deliberately reducing any emotional response to the scene.
Wisdom Comes with Age?
These findings might seem surprising, in light of a stereotype in our society about older people being grumpy. However, researchers believe that what older people are, in fact, doing is showing that with age comes wisdom. They have learned from experience that it’s important to build relationships and doing so requires paying attention to other people’s experiences and feeling compassion, not just ignoring their difficulties and blocking them out.
Thus, the fact that people develop greater emotional intelligence with more life experience suggests that emotional intelligence involves skills that can be taught at any age.
For instance, it is possible to learn and improve social skills. Many training programs designed to increase emotional intelligence focus on teaching active listening skills, paying attention to what the other person is saying and asking clarifying questions to avoid misunderstandings.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Empathy for People
Another strategy is increasing empathy for other people. We often think of empathy as a fixed trait, and while it’s certainly true that some people are naturally more empathetic than others, anyone can develop this ability with practice. Carol Dweck, a social psychologist at Stanford University, and her colleagues have found that simply telling someone that empathy can be developed increases their willingness to try to understand someone else’s perspective.
Simply telling someone that empathy isn’t fixed, but can be cultivated, increases a person’s willingness to talk to someone with a conflicting view on a social or a political issue and to listen to a person from a different racial group describe a personal story.
One study even found that watching high-quality televised dramas can improve people’s ability to identify what other people are feeling.
Watching TV Dramas Helps
Researchers assigned some college students to watch an episode of an award-winning television drama, such as Mad Men or The Good Wife; while other students watched a nature documentary – Shark Week or How the Universe Works. Another group of students watched nothing at all. Subsequently, all students were tested on their emotional intelligence using a classic test; people were shown 36 pairs of eyes and had to choose one of four words that best describes what the person in the photo is feeling: jealous, panicked, arrogant, or hateful.
Interestingly, people who watched a TV drama were more accurate than those who watched a nature documentary. In fact, people who watched the nature documentary didn’t do much better than those who watched nothing at all, suggesting that viewing television dramas, which expose us to different people’s emotions, can play an essential role in increasing our emotional intelligence.
Of course, not everything in the findings depended on the specific program being watched.
Women Have Higher Emotional Intelligence
When we speak about gender, women in general were better at identifying the correct emotion than men. These findings are in line with those from other research showing that women tend to be higher in emotional intelligence than men.
This might be because women are innately, biologically more attuned to emotions (their own and others) or because women are taught to pay more attention to emotions and, therefore, develop skills in emotion regulation.
Emotional Intelligence: A Skill Set
Oddly, the idea that emotional intelligence is some combination of innate biology and learned behavior, illustrates a broader disagreement within the psychology community about how to understand emotional intelligence. The very fact that emotional intelligence improves with more life experience, and can improve with training, has led critics to say that it should be called a set of skills rather than the more fixed and stable type of ability implied by the word intelligence.
Nonetheless, experiencing some adversity seems to help people develop skills for regulating their own emotions. This clearly suggests that emotional intelligence may well be more a function of nurture than of nature.
Common Questions about Developing Emotional Intelligence
For most people, emotional intelligence does tend to increase with age, with a peak appearing at about age 60.
Viewing television dramas, which expose us to different people’s emotions, can play an essential role in increasing our emotional intelligence.
Women in general are better at identifying the correct emotion than men. These findings are in line with those from other research showing that women tend to be higher in emotional intelligence than men.