What is emotional intelligence

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence brings together the areas of emotions and intelligence. People give off emotional information, and some people are better than others at grabbing this information and using it in their daily lives. These are the emotionally intelligent individuals.

In academics, a good amount of interest exists in emotional intelligence. As a result, there’s the inevitable proliferation of definitions, models, and confusion. In such cases, it’s best to examine individual views and then go from there.

Now. Drum roll, please…

In this post, I’m focussing on Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer’s view of emotional intelligence. (I know. I know. Anti-climactic given the title to the post.)


Salovey and Mayer wrote one of the first major papers1 on emotional intelligence in 1990. In that paper, they defined emotional intelligence as follows:

The ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.

Now, let’s break down this definition. An emotionally intelligent person has three abilities. This person has the ability to:

1) Tune into feelings – whether it’s in herself, loved ones, friends, or strangers.

2) Discriminate between happiness, sadness, depression, love, hate, and other emotions.

3) Use the emotional information that she has gathered to guide her thinking and behavior.

This three-pronged definition of emotional intelligence is the one that gets recycled in one form or another across the web.

Seven years later, in 1997, Salovey and Mayer modified their definition of emotional intelligence and introduced a “four-branch model” of emotional intelligence.2

In the 1997 paper, they stated that the earlier (1990) definition was a bit vague and impoverished as it focussed on perceiving and regulating emotions but left out thinking about them. So here comes the better, shinier, more confusing definition:

Emotional intelligence involves the ability to perceive accurately, appraise, and express emotion; the ability to access and/or generate feelings when they facilitate thought; the ability to understand emotion and emotional knowledge; and the ability to regulate emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth.

That definition is a mouthful. Looking at the bones, the definition states that the following abilities are part of emotional intelligence: perceiving emotions, using emotions to facilitate cognition, understanding emotions, and managing emotions to promote growth. The “thinking” that’s been added is within the parts of the definition. For example, to understand complex emotions, one needs to think about them. This new definition is reflected in their four-branch model of emotional intelligence. The model, today, is known as the ability model.

The Four-Branch Model

In the model, there are four branches: perceiving emotions, using emotions, understanding emotions, and managing emotions. (Look familiar? If not, reread the last definition!!) The model goes up, around, and sideways. Clear as mud. Here’s more information.

Up. And. Around.

The model is arranged from more basic processes (perceiving) to higher more complex processes (managing). Each branch feeds information into the next. See the chart below for a quick visual.

Salovey and Mayer Model
Salovey and Mayer Model



Within each branch, there are four abilities to achieve. People who are high in emotional intelligence progress more quickly through the abilities as well as develop more abilities.

You can visualize the abilities as going from left to right. The early developing abilities are to the left with the later developing abilities to the right. In my description of each branch, I will give you the list of abilities in the following manner:


Now, let’s get to some details of these branches.

Perceiving Emotions: This branch focuses in on detecting and deciphering emotions in oneself and others. Salovey and Mayer consider this the most basic part of emotional intelligence. If a person can decipher emotions in herself and others, it makes the subsequent parts of emotional intelligence possible. Right below is a list of abilities that one can develop at this branch. The earliest developing ability is identifying emotions in oneself, and the last developing ability is telling the difference between real and fake emotions.



Using Emotions (also called “Emotional Facilitation of Thinking” or “Facilitating Thought”): This branch hones in on the ability to use emotions to facilitate cognitive tasks (thinking, problem solving, spatial reasoning, etc.). For example, an emotionally intelligent student can use her mood to complete a tedious deductive reasoning assignment in a short amount of time.3 The student knows that being sad helps people conduct careful, methodical work. She can then think of sad thoughts to force a sad mood and quickly and efficiently finish her task. Immediately below is the list of four early to late developing abilities.


Understanding Emotions: This branch consists of the ability to recognize emotional language as well as recognize slight variations between emotions such as depression and grief. It also includes the knowledge of how emotions change over time such as shock turning into grief. Right below are the earlier to later developing abilities at this branch.


Managing Emotions: This branch consists of the ability to regulate emotions in ourselves and others. In one of Salovey’s papers,there’s an example of a politician increasing his anger during a speech in order to rouse indignation in the audience. So, this emotionally intelligent politician is harnessing his emotions, whether positive or negative, to achieve his goals. Below are the specific abilities developed at this branch.




Emotional intelligence is a set of abilities that allow people to process information regarding emotions efficiently and accurately. According to the four-branch model, the emotionally intelligent individual has abilities related to perceiving, using, understanding, and managing emotional information.

If you want to read an easily accessible, first-hand description of Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer’s view, go to John. D. Mayer’s academic page here.



1 Salovey, P., & Mayer, J.D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9, 185–211.

2 Mayer, J.D., & Salovey, P. (1997). What is emotional intelligence? In P. Salovey & D. Sluyter (Eds.), Emotional development and emotional intelligence: Educational implications (pp. 3–31). New York: Basic Books.

Salovey, P., & Grewal, D. (2005). The Science of EMotional Intelligence.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 281-285.

Image Attribution

Day 305: Ever Changing Mood by Kathryn

All other images are copyrighted by Lj. Velisavljevic