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The Importance of Emotional Intelligence Across the Lifespan

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In general, emotional intelligence can consist of numerous things. However, it is primarily concerned with the ability to understand your emotions and those of people around you. Some definitions consider emotional intelligence as distinguishing between different emotions or using the information to guide your thinking and actions.

As a teacher and researcher within the area of emotional intelligence and what it can influence, I believe that all three things help us define emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence was built from the concept of social intelligence. In the 1920s, E.L Thorndike defined this as the ability to act wisely in human relations. In one way, this also defines emotional intelligence; however, it builds upon the original concepts of social intelligence by combining elements of our personality and mental abilities alongside behavioural responses.

Mayer & Salovey (1990) said that emotional intelligence is our enhanced ability to use our mental processes to deal with and react to different and sometimes unexpected situations. For example, knowing how to act if you were put in a situation that made you angry would you display the outward emotion, or would you be more considerate and think about what would happen with this outward expression and how it would affect others first?

Perceiving emotions is an important part of the development and is just as important in children as in adults. Within children, the inability to perceive and understand emotions can highlight deficits in social interactions, and children need to interact to be able to develop physically, mentally and emotionally socially.

Perceiving emotions is also heavily related to difficulties in processing facial emotions (and in accurately interpreting the emotional state of others). Research can help us see how perceiving emotions can explain behaviour in children who may face difficulties.

Research has studied neglected children and found that the neglected children were poor at recognising and distinguishing between emotional expressions. However, these children were of a key developmental age, and this research highlights how the development of emotion perception and emotional intelligence is important as we grow up.

Emotional bias was also present in the research as it was shown that physically abused children showed a response bias to angry faces. These biases can then develop even more as children become adults, as this can then cause relationship issues.

There is also the application and links with academic achievement in children. For example, UK longitudinal research has investigated ability and emotional intelligence measured in year seven students. They found that emotional intelligence moderates the effect of cognitive ability on year 11 exam success.

However, where the children had the lower cognitive ability, there was little difference in performance on GCSEs, regardless of whether or not they were good at identifying, using, understanding and managing emotions.

This explains that while emotional intelligence is important, it should be considered in conjunction with other factors and not a stand-alone concept. One interesting finding was that for the children of high cognitive ability, being emotionally intelligent seemed to enhance their performance on their GCSEs.

Could it be that these students could better cope with pressure and manage that situation? Or could other factors be at play, such as improved mental health or confidence?

In adults, emotional intelligence has wider implications and the inability to perceive and understand emotions can be linked to depression, alcoholism, schizophrenia, autism, and eating disorders. This is not an exhaustive list, but these conditions may be more prominent in adults than children (although not always).

In adults, there have been positive benefits in the workplace with positive correlations between emotional intelligence and job performance. Those with higher emotional intelligence tend to succeed more in their jobs and progress quicker. There has also been researching that has highlighted how useful emotional intelligence is in education, similar findings to the previous work but in university students.

Outside the classroom, the role in sport can be highlighted with links between fewer negative emotions and optimal sports performance. When an athlete can understand and regulate their emotions, this will have less of an impact on sports performance as this means that they can concentrate more on the sport than trying to deal with their emotions.

So, to conclude, emotional intelligence has important implications for children, adults, and many aspects of life. However, more research is needed on older adults. While research suggests that older adults can ‘emotionally blunt’ as they age (so having limited emotional reactivity as we grow older), the research is limited. Therefore, we do need more research within the area.

Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. 


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