Since Daniel Goleman popularized the term "emotional intelligence" (EI), studies have found that high EI is associated with lots of good things, including academic and occupational success, resistance to stress, and better relationships. But is EI something we can learn, or is it something we've got to be born with?
Cognitive scientist Delphine Nelis and colleagues recently tried to figure this out. In their study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, they divided roughly 40 college students into two groups. One attended four two-and-a-half hour training sessions over a four-week period in order to learn techniques for improving their emotional intelligence; the other didn't take the training.
The goal of these EI sessions was to increase the participants' skills in understanding, analyzing, expressing, and regulating their emotions. Each session included short lectures, role playing exercises, discussions, and readings. For example, in a role playing exercise, two participants pretended to be co-workers in the thick of a disagreement; after their interaction, the group discussed how well they handled the disagreement, then the participants ran through the exercise again to find more positive ways of expressing their emotions.
All participants were also given a diary in which they wrote about their daily emotional experiences. They then had to analyze these experiences in class in light of what they had been learning in the training.
The participants in both groups were tested before, directly after, and six months after the training to see if their emotional intelligence had improved.
Delphine and her colleagues found that members of the group that received the training showed a significant improvement in their ability to identify their feelings and the feelings of others, as well as to manage and control their emotions. What's more, these improvements were apparent not only right after the training but also six months later.
So while this study was a small pilot with a somewhat homogenous group of participants, the findings suggest that it is possible to increase emotional intelligence in the short and long term. "Overall, the results are promising," write the researchers, "as they suggest that, with a proper methodology relying on the latest scientific knowledge about emotion and emotional processing, some facets of EI can be enhanced, but not all."
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