How Emotional Intelligence was born

In the late 20th century, it was becoming more and more apparent that traditional measures of intelligence, or IQ, were unreliable as a predictor of success in life. In fact, it is not uncommon to find someone with an IQ of 160 (near-genius level) working for someone with an IQ of 100 (absolutely average).

So what is the defining factor of life success ?? How can you measure it? And how can we tell how happy or well adjusted a child will grow up to be?

Although the term ‘emotional intelligence’ was first used in 1990, you could trace the beginnings of its discovery back to the Marshmallow test (see below), a groundbreaking experiment conducted in the 1960s with 4-year-old children. This test found that the ability to delay gratification was twice as powerful a predictor of their SAT results as IQ, and poor impulse control was also found to be a predictor of later delinquency.

Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer actually coined the term ‘Emotional Intelligence’ in 1990 and conducted extensive research to develop ways to measure it and explore its significance. For instance, one study found that people who scored high on emotional clarity (the ability to identify and give a name to their moods) recovered more quickly after being upset. In another study, individuals who scored higher in the ability to perceive and understand others’ emotions were better able to respond flexibly to changes in their environments and build supportive social networks.

The marshmallow experiment

One key aspect of emotional intelligence is the ability to delay gratification and resist the emotional impulse. The marshmallow test, a very simple experiment, began in the 60s in a preschool on the Stanford University campus. Four-year-olds were sat in a room, and each had one marshmallow put on the table in front of them. They could eat it straight away but were told that if they could wait for about 10 minutes until the researcher returned from an errand, they would be given a second marshmallow as a reward. As they gazed at the delicious marshmallow sitting tantalisingly within reach, about a third of the children couldn’t resist and grabbed it.

There are no psychological skills more fundamental than resisting impulse. 12-14 years later, the emotional and social difference between those that grabbed versus those that were able to wait for the reward was dramatic. The latter in adolescence were more socially competent, personally effective, self-assertive, and better able to cope with the frustrations of life less likely to go to pieces or regress under stress. They embraced challenges and were more persistent in the face of difficulty. They were more confident, honest, trustworthy and dependable, and took the initiative more. Also, they academically performed better, were more responsive to reason, and eager to learn.

The 1/3 of the group who grabbed, in contrast, were more shy, stubborn, indecisive, easily upset by frustrations, immobilised by stress, prone to jealousy, and more likely to overreact with sharp temper, therefore, provoking arguments and fights.