People often assume that having good emotional intelligence makes you a better person. Not so, say the authors of a study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Emotional skills can be used for good or for evil—for the betterment of the group or for humiliating your coworkers.
A popular book on emotional intelligence that came out in the mid 1990s equated emotional intelligence with good character. “There are definitely some studies that have suggested that, but also studies that have suggested the opposite,” says Stéphane Côté of the University of Toronto, who co-wrote the study with Katy DeCelles, Julie McCarthy, and Ivona Hideg of the University of Toronto and Gerben van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam. For example, one previous study conducted by a different research team found that bullies are good at identifying what causes other people’s emotions—but they’re still cruel.
Côté and his colleagues decided to look more closely at a part of emotional intelligence known as emotional regulation. That is, knowing the best way to modify your emotions so that a situation comes out well.
In one study, the researchers had participants fill out a survey on how strong their “moral identity” is—whether it’s central to their sense of self that they treat other people with kindness and compassion. Then they had people take part in a game that tests how their behavior benefits the group. (Each person chose how many points to take from a pool; the more points you take, the better your chance of winning a lottery, but if everyone takes the maximum points, there will be no lottery.) People who have a high moral identity were kinder to others in the group—even more so if they were good at emotional regulation.
In another study, they did much the same, but for the dark side; they asked people how Machiavellian they are—for example, if they agree that “anyone who completely trusts anyone else is asking for trouble.” Then the participants answered questions about a number of behaviors, for example if they’d ever publicly embarrassed someone at work. People who were Machiavellian were more likely to have treated their coworkers badly—particularly if they were good at emotional regulation.
“Emotional intelligence is not character,” Côté says. “It’s like any set of skills that we have—verbal, mathematical, analytical—these are skills that can be used to promote moral goals or selfish goals.” Some employers are training people in emotional intelligence with the hope that it will make employees beneficial to the group. But, these results suggest, better emotional intelligence can also help people treat each other badly if they are inclined to do so. The results also suggest that training employees on emotional intelligence or EI may be a good thing as long as it is combined with enforcing guidelines for ethical conduct in the workplace.