TGI Newsletter Issue #40 Learning CAN be fun. Training SHOULD be fun.
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Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?
Sallie Weems
About the author ...

Sallie Weems is the Program Manager for Continuing Medical Education at CHW-East Valley located in Chandler, Arizona. She received her Associate Degree in Nursing from Phoenix College, a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from Grand Canyon University, and her MBA in Management from Western International University. She is pursuing her doctoral studies in Higher Education and Adult Learning. Sallie has worked in the health care industry for over 20 years, and has managed undergraduate, graduate and continuing medical education since 1999. You can contact this author at [email protected].

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (EI) is described in the literature as a collection of traits and abilities that are responsible for an individual's capacity to effectively interact with others. These traits directly influence an individual's success in personal and professional relationships, and are made up of 4 distinct areas: 1) self-awareness; 2) self-management; 3) social awareness; and, 4) social skill (Goleman, 2000, p. 80). Self-awareness is described as the ability to recognize emotion and its impact on relationships, while self-management is the capacity to connect one's emotion to thoughtful action and channel impulsive behaviors. Social awareness is the aptitude to relate to others and practice empathy, and social skill is related to the ability to influence others and communicate effectively (Grewal & Davidson, 2008).

The view that the non-cognitive traits which make up emotional intelligence are of value in academic and professional development have only recently been recognized. Humphrey, Curran, Morris, Farrell and Woods (2007) acknowledged that incorporating emotional intelligence into the traditional educational model is controversial. In the study Emotional Intelligence and Education: A critical review, the authors say that "These ideas challenge the more traditional view that the purpose of education is to teach core curriculum subjects and that this knowledge alone will equip student to meet the challenges they will face as adults" (Humphrey, Curran, Morris, Farrell, & Woods, 2007, p. 236).

Daniel Goleman is considered to be an authority on emotional intelligence. He describes how each of the four areas of emotional intelligence is further made up of various 'competencies' such as self-confidence, trustworthiness, empathy, adaptability, and communication (Goleman, p. 80). Preliminary research has been done on the relationship between emotional intelligence and education (Bierema, 2008; Crossman, 2007; Grewal & Davidson, 2008; Humphrey, Curran, Morris, Farrell, & Woods, 2007). This paper investigates whether emotional intelligence can be developed in adult learners.


The construct of emotional intelligence was first described by Salovey and Mayer in 1990, and later made popular by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence published in 1995 (Bierema, 2008, p. 55). Goleman describes the link between emotional intelligence and professional success, "…the higher the rank of a person considered to be a star performer, the more emotional intelligence capabilities showed up as the reason for his or her effectiveness" (Goleman, 2004, p. 3). The concept that emotional intelligence is a valid and measurable set of traits that can influence a person's success similar to the traditional understanding of cognitive intelligence offers educators a new paradigm when designing effective teaching approaches.

Bierema (2008) believes that the long-established concept of the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) does not suitably portray the sum of one's intelligence. The author places great emphasis on the import of emotional intelligence, describing it as "a key interpersonal competency" (Bierema, 2008, p. 55). Incorporating emotional intelligence into the educational curricula seems to be a logical strategy; however, the science of measuring emotional intelligence is complex and controversial.

The two types of measurement tools that assess emotional intelligence are the self-report method and the ability-based test. Examples of the self-report tool are the Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQi) and the Self-Report Emotional Intelligence Test (SREIT). Self-report testing tools are easily administered; therefore they are used more frequently for EI measurement. The self-report method, however, is criticized by researchers because of the potential for subjects to either over- or underreport traits that are being measured. The ability-based tests are considered a more reliable tool by researchers. The Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) is an example of the ability-based test (Grewal & Davidson, 2008).

Can Emotional Intelligence be Taught?

The traits of emotional intelligence are thought to be established in childhood, and are not easily taught in the adult learner. According to Goleman (2000), EI based behaviors are derived from the neurotransmitters in the limbic system of the brain. The limbic system is considered the "emotional center" of the brain where feelings and impulses are handled. In contrast, the neocortex is the part of the brain that processes analytical thought such as logical and technical concepts. The neocortex is engaged when procedural information is being imparted, and generally, the material is grasped quickly depending on the difficulty of the subject.

The patterns of EI are ingrained as behavioral habits and are much more difficult to change or influence (Goleman, 2000, p. 88-89). The skills associated with emotional intelligence can be taught, but the educator must consider how the information will be processed by the learner when designing their teaching methods. The educator must also take into account that changing behavioral patterns and habits takes much longer than disseminating analytical content. According to Goleman, teaching EI based content is akin to creating "new neural pathways" (Goleman, p. 89). Goleman contends that EI can be taught and learned, "but not with the traditional training programs that target the rational part of the brain" (Goleman, 2004, p. 1). Incorporating EI training in the elementary school curricula is a strategy that would establish desired EI traits at a critical stage of a person's development.

Because emotional intelligence is complex and made up of several components, researchers have difficulty isolating and controlling the variables in studies of EI training programs. Some researchers contend that "few controlled studies have tested the effectiveness of EI training programs" (Grewal & Davidson, 2008, p. 1201). Humphrey et al. (2007) noted that prior research on EI show varied results because of potential flaws in the research methods or assumptions, and that meticulous studies are still needed to fully understand the field of emotional intelligence in relationship to academic success. These authors state that "without more convincing evidence emerging from high quality studies, doubts will remain about the potential benefits of this most elusive form of intelligence" (Humphrey et al., 2007, p. 249).

Grewal and Davidson do, however, cite some examples that show a positive relationship between EI training and increased EI measurement scores. In one study, the authors' reported an increase in MSCEIT scores with dental employees after EI training. These researchers also noted that medical schools have incorporated emotion skills training into their program of study, which have resulted in "consistently improved empathy and 'other directed' emotional skills" (Grewal & Davidson, p. 1201).

Dulewicz and Higgs (2004) also analyzed and reported results of studies examining the effect of EI training programs. In one study, a sample of 59 managers was selected to attend an EI development program. The study participants completed an EIQ to measure their baseline status and took a second EIQ after they attended training one day per week for four weeks. The study results showed statistically significant improvement on their total EIQ score, and on five of the seven EI skills that were taught.

In the second study, a sample of 27 pharmaceutical employees was broken out into a control and an experimental group. All participants took the EIQ measurement as a baseline, and retested in 12 months. The experimental group took part in a continuous improvement training program that included both analytical and EI content. The results of the study showed no difference in the overall EIQ score, however, the experimental group showed a statistically significant improvement in the trait of conscientiousness (Dulewicz & Higgs, 2004). The authors concluded, "The main finding from this study is that there is evidence to support the widely held belief that EI is capable of being developed" (Dulewicz & Higgs, p. 109).


Emotional intelligence as an important component of an individual's overall intellect is gaining acceptance and credibility within academic and professional circles despite the lack of authoritative research on the topic. Research on EI is incomplete because the concept is relatively new, and designing studies is complicated by the limitations of current tools to measure emotional elements. Despite these issues, authorities on the subject believe that the current data supports the view that EI should be part of early and adult education. "Education should encompass both the rational and the emotional to best prepare our children for adult life" (Humphrey et al., 2007, p. 236).Traditional educational models value the analytical capacity of the student, and measure success based on their grasp of intellectual concepts. The realization that this model is insufficient, and that emotional aspects of intelligence should be included in education is critical to developing well-rounded individuals.

Preliminary research supports the link between EI training programs and improvement in EI scores, but educators must be knowledgeable about the implications of how the brain processes EI- based content versus analytical content. Using traditional teaching methods in EI training programs, such as a lecture format, will be less effective than methods such as reflection, role play and behavior modification over time.


Bierema, L. L. (2008). Adult learning in the workplace; emotion work or emotion learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 120, 55-64. doi: 10.1002/ace.316
Crossman, J. (2007). The role of relationships and emotions in student perceptions of learning and assessment. Higher Education Research and Development, 26(3), 313-327. doi: 10.1080/07294360701494328
Dulewicz, V., & Higgs, M. (2004). Can emotional intelligence be developed. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 15(1), 95-111. doi: 10.1080/0958519032000157366
Goleman, D. (2000). Leadership that gets results. Harvard Business Review, (2000, March-April), 78-90. Retrieved from
Goleman, D. (2004). What makes a leader. Harvard Business Review, (2004, January), 2-11. Retrieved from
Grewal, D., & Davidson, H. A. (2008). Emotional intelligence and graduate medical education. Journal of the American Medical Association, 300, 1200-1202. Retrieved from
Humphrey, N., Curran, A., Morris, E., Farrell, P., & Woods, K. (2007). Emotional intelligence and education: a critical review. Educational Psychology, 27(2), 235-254. doi: 10.1080/01443410601066735

Famous Quotes
Proverb — "The root of all health is in the brain. The trunk of it is in emotion. The branches and leaves are the body. The flower of health blooms when all parts work together."

Unknown — "Winners dwell on and hold the self-image of that person they would most like to become. They get a vivid, clear, emotional, sensory picture of themselves as if they had already achieved their new role in life."

James Thurber — "Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquillity."

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