NEWS: Is your emotional intelligence stressing you out?!

News title against brown and red hexagonal background for news story on Emotional Intelligence

NEWSFLASH for those more intuitive folks out there – your emotional intelligence could be causing you a tonne of stress according to the latest research.

At least that’s according to an interpretation of a study discussed in Scientific American.

Here’s the gist.

Psychologists quizzed 166 male university students to see how sensitive they were to others’ feelings. It was probably the sort of thing you would expect. They showed the students a series of pictures of people pulling different expressions. Then they asked the students to say what they thought each person was feeling.

The students were then asked to give job talks in front of stern-looking judges.

The scientists meanwhile measured the students’ stress levels both before and after the talks. They took saliva samples and checked for stress chemical cortisol.

Guess what? The more emotionally intelligent students were more stressed about the talk and took longer to calm back down. Their empathy for what people thought was making them worse.

But that doesn’t mean this study of emotional intelligence and stress is open and shut

I dare you to do a Google search for “emotional intelligence”. It doesn’t take long to see that people have run with the phrase in different directions. The study we’re discussing today seems to define Emotional Intelligence as externally-focused. In other words you see what people think and then you get worried about it. But this article, here, seems to look at it mainly as an internal thing. Emotional intelligence here is about understanding your own feelings.

So are they both right?

Michael Beldoch coined the term Emotional Intelligence way back in the 1960s. But the term really caught on after the fashionable book in 1995 by a psychologist Daniel Goleman. Since then there has been some bashing by the scientific community of Goleman’s book (apparently here, but I’ll admit to not having £30 to find out). Conversely, there’s been much lauding of it by the popular press. Regardless, Emotional Intelligence seems to mean both inner and outer perceptiveness. Since then, however, people seem to be interpreting it in a way that’s convenient to them.

So problem number one with this study is it only looks at one side of emotional intelligence.

The other problem with popular interpretations of this study into Emotional Intelligence and stress

Then there’s problem number two: how this study is going to be received by most of the public. Scientific American misses out the title of the original study. The title of the study is Predicting stress from the ability to eavesdrop on feelings: Emotional intelligence and testosterone jointly predict cortisol reactivity.

That’s right, there’s emphasis on testosterone here.

And that bit, it seems, is important.

Why? Because the study abstract also says it centres on “status-driven individuals”. The high testosterone is important because it tends to denote someone bothered about social standing. So your hippy aunt Flo is not going to have the same problem as Marc, the aspiring city banker.

So where to from here?

Well, this study is interesting within its own narrow confines. That’s it. It’s about status-driven individuals who appreciate what authority figures think of them under stressful situations.

It’s not about you unless you fit this description. And it’s not saying emotional intelligence is bad. For instance the study abstract doesn’t explain the levels of “success” the participants had. Was it “good” stress or “bad” stress? Were the stressed ones “better” at giving the presentations?

And it is out of context as well. Most of the time you are not going to be facing a stern judge, at least not unless you’re a barrister or a fairly incompetent criminal. What different emotions (other than “stern”) you perceive in the rest of the world makes for a different set of scenarios.

In other words go with your gut feeling on this. If your own emotional intelligence is stressing you out then you need to listen to yourself and take some time out.

And remember I’m not a medical professional: if things are truly bad don’t hesitate to get professional help.