The history of Emotional Intelligence

The concept of Emotional Intelligence has been around for some time. Only in recent decades however, has the theory been studied, refined and given a practical application in the real world. By charting the evolution of emotional intelligence, we can see how our general concept of intelligence has evolved over time to include skills and abilities governed by emotion and not pure intellect.


Before we begin, it is worth defining Emotional Intelligence as used in the context of this article. In this instance, we refer to an individual’s awareness, control and expression of their emotions. This also includes the ability to recognise, respond and manage the emotions of others. All individuals possess emotional intelligence to some degree.


A hint of something beyond the traditional concept of intelligence

The term ‘emotional intelligence’ may be credited to Michael Beldoch where it appeared in his book, ‘The Communication of Emotional Meaning’ in 1964. Beldoch had been studying the ability of people to identify emotions from both verbal and non-verbal modes of communication. Although Beldoch did not explore the concept much further, other researchers picked up on the notion.

During 1966, in the psychotherapeutic journal: Practice of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, another reference to emotional intelligence was made by B. Leuner. In a piece entitled ‘Emotional Intelligence and Emancipation’, Leuner put forward the hypothesis that adult women who suffered from low emotional intelligence were more likely to reject their societal roles. He believed that this could be attributed to the fact that they had been separated from their mothers at an early age. He proceeded to treat his patients with LSD; a practice that would be considered most inappropriate today.

It wasn’t until 1983 when a more modern and practical theory of emotional intelligence was put forward. In his book, ‘Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences’, Howard F. Gardner made the bold suggestion that there was more than one type of intelligence. In fact, his model proposed seven intelligences including:

  • Linguistic intelligence
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence
  • Musical intelligence
  • Bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence
  • Spatial intelligence
  • Interpersonal intelligence
  • Intrapersonal intelligence.

It is Gardner’s definition of Intrapersonal Intelligence that most closely resembles our modern definition of emotional intelligence. Gardener also recognised that these individual notions of intelligence do not operate independently of each other. When faced with a problem to solve, an individual will draw on all their resources to provide a solution. While his theory was not widely applauded by the academic community, it was met with a positive response from educators. Many teachers realised the value of his theory when applied to structuring the curricula of schools.

Slowly but surely, the idea that there was something beyond the limited definition of intelligence was starting to emerge. Beldoch realised that people were able to pick up on the emotions of others using verbal and non-verbal cues. Our ability to decipher another’s emotional state based on their tone of voice and their body language is impressive considering that we are never really taught how to do it. This innate ability is why one could consider it a type of intelligence.

While modern psychotherapists may baulk at B. Leuner’s hypothesis, it does provide another important clue; the idea that your emotional intelligence may have an effect on your behaviour. It was Gardner who moved the community closer to the idea that emotional intelligence forms part of an individual’s overall intelligence. This provided future researchers with a concept they could explore and mould into a practical theory.


Defining the concept and creating a model

While former researchers had touched on the notion of emotional intelligence, they hadn’t clearly defined it. This started to change with the publication of Wayne Payne’s doctoral thesis in 1985, ‘A Study of Emotion: Developing Emotional Intelligence’. In the thesis Payne explored how people develop their emotional intelligence. He raised important questions about the nature of emotion and provided a language and framework for discussing emotions. Finally, he attempted to provide some methods and tools that could be used for developing emotional intelligence.

This was the first time that the topic had been explored in such detail. It provided the framework for many future researchers to approach the subject and flesh out the theory behind it. It also provided them with a structure on which they could start to develop future models and discover practical applications for the concept.

Stanley Greenspan was the first to put forward a model for emotional intelligence in 1989. His research focused on young children which led him to propose that there were six stages of the developmental mind. These stages are:


Stage 1:  Security: The ability to look, listen and be calm

This describes the skill of babies to absorb all the activity in their environment while regulating their emotions. It also includes their ability to focus their attention on one thing such as a favourite toy or their mother’s face without becoming over-excited.


Stage 2: Relating: The ability to feel warm and close to others

As the child develops, they learn how to relate to others and respond in a warm and caring manner. It is an important part of their emotional development which normally occurs around 4-6 months of age.


Stage 3: Intentional two-way communication without words

By 18 months, most children will already be able to use non-verbal methods of communication to express themselves. At the same time, they learn how to read the non-verbal cues of others. Children and adults who don’t develop this skill often experience difficult and confusing relationships with others because they are unable to decode these emotional signals.


Stage 4: Solving problems and forming a sense of self

Between the age of 14-18 months, children develop advanced skills in relating to others and use this to further develop their sense of self. It also allows them to start solving problems with the help of others.


Stage 5: Emotional ideas

In the time between 18 months and the age of 3, children develop the ability to express their emotions in words and pictures. For example, instead of crying the child is able to tell you that they’re angry or upset.


Stage 6: Emotional thinking

3-4 year old children are able to connect their emotions to other concepts and causes. They not only label emotions, but are able to explain the circumstances that cause them to feel a certain way. For example, a child will tell you they are sad because someone took their favourite toy.

By tracking the development of emotional intelligence in children, Greenspan illustrated that not only does it help to form an individual’s personality; it also contributes to their intelligence. Being able to understand and respond appropriately to the emotions of others play a significant role in everyday problem-solving.

Another important event in 1985 was when Peter Savoy and John Mayer put forward the Four Branch Model of Emotional Intelligence. This consisted of four skills that, when put together, describe the many facets of emotional intelligence. These four branches are:

  1. Perceiving emotion: The ability to read both verbal and non-verbal cues in others to determine their emotional state is an essential component of communication. It also paves the way for a more advanced understanding of emotion.
  2. Using emotions to facilitate thought: We actively respond to emotions in others because their emotional state has the ability to affect our thinking. Emotion has the ability to affect our creativity as it grabs our attention, enters our cognitive system and influences & directs it.
  3. Understanding emotions: It is not only essential that we correctly decode another’s emotional state; we must be able to comprehend what that emotion signifies. We need to be able to put in a context and even determine the cause.
  4. Managing emotions: This may refer to both your emotions and the emotions of others in your social circle. Having the ability to control your emotions (wherever possible) and responding appropriately to the emotions of others is a key skill. It allows us to achieve our own goals and to help others achieve theirs.

Let’s use an example to see Savoy and Mayer’s model in action. Imagine that a colleague comes into your office and from their tone of voice you are able to sense that they are angry (perceiving emotion). You remember hearing that they are experiencing difficulties with an important project (using emotions to facilitate thought). You realise that your colleague is under a great deal of pressure (understanding emotions). Although a setback on their side will affect your own work, you decide to remain calm and ask them if there’s anything you can do to help (managing emotions).

Between Greenspan, and Savoy and Mayer, our modern interpretation of emotional started to develop. The concept was still not widely accepted, but that was about to change.


The popularisation of emotional intelligence

It was David Goleman’s 1995 book, ‘Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ’, that brought the concept of emotional intelligence to the attention of the general public. His theories have had a profound impact on the education and business sectors. By using the model suggested by Savoy and Mayer, Goleman went on to develop his own model. Here is a brief synopsis of Goleman’s Five Components of Emotional Intelligence:

  • Emotional self-awareness: This is the ability to identify and understand the emotions of others and the effect it has on our own emotions.
  • Self-regulation: This is the ability to control our emotions and examine them objectively before deciding on a course of action.
  • Internal motivation: This refers to our ability to pursue a goal persistently, despite any obstacles we may face. It includes a sense of optimism and a strong desire to achieve something.
  • Empathy: This is the ability to understand and respond emotionally to others, based on their emotional state appropriately.
  • Social skills: This is the ability to build relationships with others by creating rapport between members of a social group.

The effect of Goleman’s book elevated the concept of emotional intelligence from an obscure theory studied by psychologists to one that could be applied practically in various areas of the average person’s life such as their work space and family relationships. Humans are social creatures and we are constantly involved in relationships. Our ability to read, respond to and manage our emotions has a direct impact on our personal, professional and private lives.

What Goleman managed to illustrate was how emotional intelligence could be developed to achieve happiness and success. It’s hardly surprising that the business world, and in particular the area of human resources found his theory so exciting.

While workers are often hired for their knowledge and skills, this is not a good indicator of their future performance within an organisation. In fact, many human resource departments now include a form of emotional intelligence testing in their recruitment process. The results have indicated that employees who exhibit a high emotional intelligence tend to perform better than equally knowledgeable and skilled, but less emotionally intelligent candidates.

Goleman wrote several other books on the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace. As healthy relationships are so essential to our performance, well-being and ability to solve problems and achieve goals, it’s clear to see why emotional intelligence is such an important topic. Even educators have incorporated elements of his theories on emotional intelligence to adapt their approach. Many schools around the world have achieved success by implementing his social and emotional learning (SEL) programme.

Since researches first touched on the idea of emotional intelligence, it has become a world-wide phenomenon. Thanks to the work of Greenspan, Savoy and Mather we gained a better understanding of the aspects of what emotional intelligence. The work of Daniel Goleman has contributed significantly to the practical application of emotional intelligence in business and education.


Emotional intelligence may be a relatively new concept, but it is a powerful one. As more people and businesses come to appreciate the importance of emotional intelligence, it is essential for every individual to understand it and learn how to use it effectively.