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Theories About Emotional Intelligence

Theories about emotional intelligence focus on understanding how people identify, understand, and manage emotions. Emotional intelligence, sometimes referred to as EI, involves understanding not just one’s own emotions but also the emotions of other people. Some theories about emotional intelligence characterize it as an ability, while others describe it as a personality trait.

This article takes a closer look at theories about emotional intelligence and the impact it may have on your life.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

The concept of emotional intelligence was first introduced by researchers John D. Mayer and Peter Solovey in two articles published in 1990.

Definition: Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to reason about emotions and for emotions to influence thought.

Their influential 1990 article described emotional intelligence as “the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and other’s feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”

[Emotional intelligence is] the ability to perceive emotion, integrate emotion to facilitate thought, understand emotions, and to regulate emotions to promote personal growth.

John D. Mayer and Peter Solovey

Additionally, they proposed the model that suggested they were for key factors and emotional intelligence. These factors are emotional perception, emotional understanding, emotional management, and emotional reasoning.

Four Theories About Emotional Intelligence

Several theories have been proposed to explain emotional intelligence. Each theory has contributed to our understanding of emotional intelligence and its practical applications in diverse contexts.

Four of the main theories about emotional intelligence are:

Mayer and Salovey’s Ability Theory of Emotional Intelligence

Developed by psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey, this model defines emotional intelligence as the ability to perceive, understand, use, and manage emotions. It emphasizes four key abilities: perceiving emotions, using emotions to facilitate thinking, understanding emotions, and managing emotions.

Trait Model of Emotional Intelligence

This model suggests that emotional intelligence can be conceptualized as a set of personality traits related to emotional self-awareness, emotional regulation, self-motivation, empathy, and social skills. The trait model focuses on stable individual differences in emotional functioning.

Goleman’s Mixed Model of Emotional Intelligence

Developed by Daniel Goleman, this model combines elements from both the ability and trait approaches. Goleman popularized the concept of emotional intelligence through his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

According to Goleman, emotional intelligence is a mix of abilities, traits, and competencies that enable individuals to succeed in various domains, including personal and professional life.

Bar-On Model of Emotional-Social Intelligence (ESI)

Reuven Bar-On proposed this theory about emotional intelligence, which views emotional intelligence as a multifaceted construct consisting of intrapersonal, interpersonal, adaptability, stress management, and general mood dimensions. Bar-On’s model emphasizes the role of emotional and social skills in overall well-being and success.

Key Components of Emotional Intelligence

To better understand theories about emotional intelligence, it helps to break it down by looking at the different factors that Meyer and Solovey identified. They identified four different levels of emotional intelligence:

  • Emotional perception
  • Emotional assimilation
  • Emotional understanding
  • Emotional management

Emotional Perception

To be emotionally intelligent, you must first be able to recognize different emotions, both in yourself and in others. There are many different ways to see emotions, including facial expressions, verbal responses, and nonverbal signals.

Emotional Assimilation

Once you have perceived an emotion, the next step involves reasoning with emotions. Emotions can help us determine what we need to pay attention to or what might be important in the world around us.

Reasoning with emotions allows us to determine what we need to prioritize as we interact with others and our environment.

Emotional Understanding

Emotional intelligence also involves understanding emotions. It’s not enough to recognize and pay attention to emotion—you must also figure out what it might mean.

Is someone angry because they are upset about something you’ve done, or are they just having a bad day? People who possess a great deal of emotional intelligence can look at emotional reactions and figure out what might be causing them.

Emotional Management

Finally, managing emotions is critical to emotional intelligence. People with high emotional intelligence can regulate their own emotions and respond appropriately at the moment. They also manage emotional situations and respond to other people’s emotional reactions.

Emotional Competencies

Some theories about emotional intelligence focus on specific competencies that are involved. For example, psychologist and author Daniel Goleman also identified several different emotional competencies. 


Self-awareness involves the ability to understand your own emotions. It encompasses recognizing your own feelings and understanding how your moods and actions might affect other people.

Self-aware people monitor their feelings and can recognize and identify how they feel in a situation. They are also aware of how other people respond and feel about them.

Social Skills

Emotionally intelligent people interact well with others because they are so adept at understanding, managing, and expressing emotions. They think about how other people feel, know how people might react, and use that information to guide their own behavior and reactions.

Self Regulation

Emotional intelligence also involves being able to manage your emotions. Regulating emotions isn’t about tamping down and hiding what you feel; it’s about expressing emotions in healthy and acceptable ways.

This ability often involves remaining calm in the face of high emotion. It also involves being conscientious of other people’s feelings as well.


People with high emotional intelligence also tend to possess what is known as intrinsic motivation. This type of motivation involves pursuing things for things beyond external rewards.

Instead, people do things that fulfill their own inner goals and needs. They look for ways to improve themselves and expand their experiences and knowledge of the world.


Empathy involves putting yourself in someone else’s position and feeling compassion and understanding for what they are experiencing. This ability means you can imagine how you would feel in another person’s place.

Empathy can influence how you respond to others who might be experiencing difficult emotions. For example, you might look for ways to cheer someone up or calm them down.

Examples of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence can play an important role in many aspects of your life, from your relationships with loved ones to your interactions in the workplace.

Understanding Emotions

Emotions are not always easy to recognize and understand, but being more aware of the role that feelings play can often help.

Emotional intelligence allows people to get a clearer picture of their feelings and get to the root of what’s causing those emotions.

Making Decisions

Sometimes we make decisions based on what we think is simply logic without really considering the important role that emotions can play. By thinking about emotions, however, you can often give more consideration to how a decision might affect you and others.

Resolving Conflicts

Having strong emotional intelligence allows people to respond better to conflict. Rather than getting carried away by strong emotions and responding in the heat of the moment, people can step back and try to empathize and understand another person’s point of view. 

Signs of Emotional Intelligence

In addition to knowing more about the common theories about emotional intelligence, it can be helpful to recognize the signs of this ability. Some signs of high emotional intelligence include:

  • Thinking about how other people feel
  • Being  assertive when communicating with others
  • Being highly self-aware
  • Listing to others and asking questions
  • Sharing feelings with others

Signs of low emotional intelligence include:

  • Getting in lots of arguments with other people
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Not listening to what others have to say
  • Blaming other people; never taking personal responsibility
  • Poor social relationships

Measuring Emotional Intelligence

Theories about emotional intelligence also focus on some of the different ways to measure it. There are a few different tests that are often used in research settings to assess emotional competencies. These include:

  • The Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory (EI-Q): This self-report test uses Likert type items that assess competencies in a range of areas including decision-making, stress-management, self-expression, interpersonal relationships, and self-perception.
  • The Situational Test of Emotional Understanding (STEU) and Situational Test of Emotion Management (STEM): These tests are designed to measure EI as a skill. The STEU measures a person’s understanding of their own and others’ emotions. The STEM measures how well people are able to manage their emotions. 
  • Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI): Developed by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, the ESCI is designed to assess 12 different emotional competencies in four ability areas.

The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations offers evaluations of some of the frequently used measures of EI as well as information about which assessments are best for different uses.

How to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence

Some theories about emotional intelligence suggest that some people tend to come by these emotional skills much more naturally, which may be influenced by factors such as genetics, overall temperament, and upbringing. However, there are things that you can do to improve your own emotional skills. 

One study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that emotional intelligence training was effective in increasing emotional competencies when taught either online, in a classroom, or through coaching. 

So what are some strategies you might use to boost your own emotional intelligence?

  • Pay attention to your emotions. Becoming more self-aware is one of the first steps toward building strong emotional abilities. When you are feeling an emotion, work on identifying what that emotion is and consider exactly what’s causing it.
  • Empathize more. Being able to understand how other people might be feeling is critical for strong emotional awareness. Empathy allows you to respond better in social situations. Spending time actively thinking about what other people might be feeling can help you hone these empathizing abilities.
  • Watch your stress. Consider the ways that you respond to stressful or difficult situations. Understanding your tendencies can help you keep your emotions in check during stressful moments.
  • Pause before you react. Being able to regulate your emotions is critical. Before you have an emotional response, take a moment to step back and think about your feelings and actions. Work on responding in ways that are adaptive and appropriate.
  • Consider how your emotions affect others. Your emotional reactions don’t just influence your behavior; they also have an impact on the people around you. Try to respond in ways that enhance your relationships and take responsibility for your actions. 


Emotional intelligence is an important ability that can have an effect on your well-being, your success, and your relationships. Understanding some of the different theories about emotional intelligence can help you learn more about how to make the most of this valuable skill.

While some people may seem to be better at understanding and working with emotions, this skill can also be developed with practice.

Related Reading: 50+ Great Emotional Intelligence Quotes


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