Why Emotional Intelligence Is In Decline

Key Points
    • Emotional intelligence consists of four factors: well-being, self-control, emotionality, and sociability.
    • The cross-temporal meta-analysis included 70 studies with nearly 17,000 participants.
    • Three facets of emotional intelligence declined over time: well-being, self-control, and emotionality.
    • Access to technology was associated with decreased well-being and self-control.
New research appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Personality by Khan and colleagues (2021) presents a meta-analysis showing declining levels of emotional intelligence in Western college-student samples in studies that were completed between 2001 and 2019.
What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is a complex construct consisting of four factors: well-being, self-control, emotionality, and sociability. The factor of well-being encompasses one’s positive self-evaluations, as well as feelings of happiness and optimism. The factor of self-control includes the ability to regulate one’s feelings, including emotions, stress, and impulses. The factor of emotionality involves relationship skills such as one’s ability to accurately perceive one’s own as well as others’ feelings and one’s capacity to experience empathy. The factor of sociability includes one’s ability to communicate effectively, exert influence over others, and build social networks (Khan et al., 2021).

The Current Research

The lead author of the present study searched for previous research using the Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire, which was conducted between 2001 and 2019. The researchers also limited inclusion in the meta-analysis to those studies involving college student samples from the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. The present research included 70 studies with nearly 17,000 participants. The researchers then conducted a “cross-temporal meta-analysis” to examine changes in emotional intelligence over time, controlling for the age of the cohorts. They sought to determine “whether societal-level changes have coincided with changes in trait EI [emotional intelligence] in young adults.”

The Findings

The researchers found (when controlling for gender as well as the country where the study was conducted) that time was significantly negatively associated with three facets of emotional intelligence: well-being, self-control, and emotionality. Furthermore, the declines in emotional intelligence were “stronger as the proportion of females in the sample decrease[d].” The authors also conducted supplementary analyses showing that access to technology in each of the countries was “associated with lower levels of well-being and self-control.”

The Implications

The authors speculate that the rapid rise in young adults’ use of social media might be responsible for some of the declines in emotional intelligence. “In-person social interaction provides greater opportunity for emotional closeness and bonding compared to online communication, which is problematic if individuals are replacing in-person social interactions with online communication.” Changes in society over the past two decades may also be responsible for “generational decreases in empathy and increases in depression and anxiety symptoms” as well as “increases in mood disorders, suicide ideation, and suicide attempts.”

Although the design of the current study does not permit drawing causal conclusions, the authors speculate that social media increasingly “replaces in-person communication resulting in increasing loneliness and facilitates social comparisons and peer envy.” The researchers propose that other factors such as academic stress or family instability may also drive these declines in emotional intelligence. “Pinpointing the causes behind declining levels of well-being, self-control, and emotionality is particularly important for the prevention of mental health issues.” The authors also note the possibility that “well-being may have declined over time as a consequence of declines in other facets of trait EI (e.g., self-control and emotionality).”

The Limitations and Future Directions

One limitation of the current project: Because many individual papers did not report the ethnic background of their participants, the current researchers were unable to explore ethnic background as a potential moderator of emotional intelligence. To address declining emotional intelligence, the researchers recommend implementing interventions that can improve trait emotional intelligence over the long term, noting that “these interventions were also successful in improving participants’ social relationships and employability.” The authors hope that their analysis “stimulates further research into investigating the causes of these alarming societal trends.”

Author: Madeleine A. Fugère Ph.D.