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Definition of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the innate potential to feel, use, communicate, recognize, remember, describe, identify, learn from, manage, understand and explain emotions.


The Innate Potential Model of Emotional Intelligence

Applying the Innate Potential Model of EI to a Baby

Ability, Skill and Potential

Potential EI vs. Actual EI Skills (EI vs EQ)

Innate Emotional Intelligence vs "EQ"

The Mayer - Salovey Academic Definition

My Concerns about the Mayer - Salovey Definition

Comparison between the "corporate" definition
of EI and my "socially responsible" definition

The Common Definition of EI - A Cynical View

Competencies, Skills and Intelligence

Editoral about Motivation, Defining EI, Gods and Education

Other Definitions of EI on the Net

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The Innate Potential Model of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the innate potential to feel, use, communicate, recognize, remember, describe, identify, learn from, manage, understand and explain emotions. - S.Hein, 2007

This is a new definition as of December 17, 2007. It is based on the academic work of the Jack Mayer and Peter Salovey. This definition differs from the Mayer Salovey definition in one very important way because it emphasizes that emotional intelligence an innate potential.

In other words, each baby is born with a specific and unique potential for these components of emotional intelligence:

1. Emotional sensitivity

2. Emotional memory

3. Emotional processing ability

4. Emotional learning ability

Because the definition offered here is based on an innate potential, it makes a very important distinction between this inborn potential and what actually happens to that potential over a person's life.

For more on this see Potential EI vs. Actual EI Skills (EI vs EQ)


Dec 15, 2007 note - Today I realized that the ability to explain your feelings is also a part of emotional intelligence. As with the other components of EI, one's ability to do this later in life depends both on one's innate potential and one's life experiences. Here is one example, if we ask a person how they feel and they tell us they feel uncomfortable with something, but they cannot tell us why, it could be more because they lack innate emotional intelligence or because they were never taught to understand their feelings, to label their feelings and to analyze the cause and effect relationship between events and their feelings.

December 17, 2007 - I got an email from a reader suggesting I add "describe". I agree with him, so I have added that, plus "identify". Here is his email.

Here are some earlier definitions I offered.



Applying the The Innate Potential Model of EI to a Baby

As a practical example of emotional intelligence, and to see how even one baby’s innate level of emotional intelligence can be different than another’s, let’s look at a baby’s feelings of fear.

Fear, of course, is a natural feeling. Its purpose, as designed by nature, is to help the baby survive. A baby has a natural fear of abandonment because the baby knows its life depends on others. When it is left alone, it feels afraid. A baby is also afraid of being separated from its parents, so if a stranger tries to take the baby away from them, it is natural for the baby to feel afraid. But not all babies respond to fear in exactly the same way. Let’s consider a baby’s fear as we look at each of the components of emotional intelligence. First, here is a reminder of my definition of EI.

Emotional intelligence is the innate potential to feel, use, communicate, recognize, remember, learn from, manage, understand avd explain emotions.
Feel Emotions Feeling afraid is the first step in the baby trying to meet its survival needs. If it does not feel afraid, it won't take the steps needed to ensure its own safety and survival.
Use Emotions A frightened baby uses its fear to take needed action.
Communicate Emotions This action is typically crying, or screaming when very, very afraid. A more emotionally intelligent baby will do a better job of communicating its fear, and thus will have a higher chance of survival.
Recognize Emotions A baby with high emotional intelligence will quickly learn to recognize when the mother or father is angry.
Remember Emotions The highly emotionally intelligent baby will remember the details of how the mother and father look when they are angry, how their voices sound and what movements they make.
Learn from Emotions The highly emotionally intelligent baby will quickly learn when it does something which angers the parent.
Manage Emotions A baby with high EI will more quickly learn to manage its own emotions so as not to anger the parents. For example, it will learn not to cry, even though crying is natural, if crying angers the parent.

While all of the above components can be found in an emotionally intelligent baby, the final component, understanding emotions is probably reserved for later in life, when a child begins to develop its ability to reason.


Potential EI vs. Actual EI Skills (EI vs EQ)

As written in my definition section, I believe each child enters the world with a unique potential for these components of emotional intelligence:

1. Emotional sensitivity

2. Emotional memory

3. Emotional processing and problem solving ability

4. Emotional learning ability.

The way we are raised dramatically affects what happens to our potential in each of these areas. For example a baby might be born with a very high potential for music -- he or she might be a potential Mozart -- but if that child's potential is never recognized, nurtured, and enouraged, and if the child is never given the chance to develop their musical potential, they will never become a talented musician later in life. The world will then miss out on this person's special gift to humanity.

Also, a child being raised in an emotionally abusive home can be expected to use their emotional potential in unhealthy ways later in life. (See the "Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence")

Because of these possibilities, I encourage you to make a distinction between a person's inborn emotional potential versus their actual emotional skills and use of emotional intelligence later in life. I suggest we use the term "emotional intelligence" only for a person's inborn, innate emotional potential. When we want to talk about their actual emotional skills and emotional management as we see by their behavior, I suggest we use the term "EQ" since it is already often being used talk about a person's practical emotional skills.

See this article about the words ability, skill and potential.

Here is more writing on this idea of mine from a couple years ago....

And here is a bit of history on what seems to be the first published use of the term EQ, written by Keith Beasley in 1987 for Mensa Magazine in England. I like Keith's concept of EQ. It is more practical than the academic concept of emotional intelligence and more humanitarian than the corportate concept promoted by Dan Goleman.

Innate Emotional Intelligence vs "EQ"

Most writers interchange the terms "EQ" and "emotional intelligence". I believe, however, it is useful to try to make distinction between a person's person's innate potential versus what actually happens to that potential over their lifetime. I believe each baby is born with a certain potential for emotional sensitivity, emotional memory, emotional processing and emotional learning ability. It is these four inborn components which I believe form the core of one's emotional intelligence.

This innate intelligence can be either developed or damaged with life experiences, particularly by the emotional lessons taught by the parents, teachers, caregivers and family during childhood and adolescence. The impact of these lessons results in what I refer to as one's level of "EQ." in other words, as I use the term, "EQ" represents a relative measure of a person's healthy or unhealthy development of their innate emotional intelligence.

When I say "EQ" I am not talking about a numerical test score like IQ. It is simply a convenient name I am using. As far as I know, I am the only writer who is making a distinction between inborn potential and later development or damage. I believe it is possible for a child to begin life with a high level of innate emotional intelligence, but then learn unhealthy emotional habits from living in an abusive home. Such a child will grow up to have what I would call low EQ. I would suspect that abused, neglected and emotionally damaged children will score much lower on the existing emotional intelligence tests compared to others having the same actual original emotional intelligence at birth.

As I see it, I believe, then, that it is possible for a person to start out with high EI, but then be emotionally damaged in early childhood, causing a low EQ later in life. On the other hand, I believe it is possible for a child to start out with relatively low EI, but receive healthy emotional modeling, nurturing etc., which will result in moderately high EQ. Let me stress however that I believe it is much easier to damage a high EI child than to develop the EQ of a low EI child. This follows the principle that it is generally easier to destroy than create.

In comparison to say, mathematical intelligence, it is important to note that relatively few people start out with high innate mathematical abilities and then have this ability damaged through misleading or false math training or modeling. I say relatively few because I mean in comparison to the number of emotionally sensitive children who receive unhealthy and self-destructive emotional imprinting from any number of sources. Parents and television shows don't generally teach that 2+2=968. But they do often teach emotional lessons which are as equivalent in unhealthiness as this equation is in inaccuracy. Or we might say which would be as damaging to an intimate relationship as the false equation would be to the career of an accountant.

At present, all other models of emotional intelligence, including even the most "pure" of the group, the Mayer/Salovey/Caruso model, combine the measurement of the innate emotional variables (sensitivity, memory, processing and learning) with the environmental affects on those same variables. Certain writers have defined intelligence in general as "potential." I agree with this and this is why I want to distinguish between EI and EQ.


See this article about the words ability, skill and potential.

The Mayer - Salovey Academic Definition of EI

Jack Mayer and Peter Salovey have been the leading researchers in emotional intelligence since 1990. In that year they suggested that emotional intelligence is a true form of intelligence which had not been scientifically measured until they began their research work.

Here is how they defined emotional intelligence in 1990

We define emotional intelligence as the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions.

In the abstract of the 1990 article they also wrote:

This article presents a framework for emotional intelligence, a set of skills hypothsized to contribute to the accurate appraisal and expression of emotion in oneself and in others, the effective regulation of emotion in self and others, and the use of feelings to motivate, plan and achieve in one's life.

They and their colleagues have used various definitions of EI in their academic journal articles since 1990, but their 1997 definition is they one they use the most now. First, here are a few other definitions they have used, then a full presentation fo the 1997 definition is shown. Pease be sure to also read this article about the words ability, skill and potential. The article discusses a fundamental problem with this 1997 definition, ie the problem with their imprecise use of the word "ability".

Four branches of Emotional Intelligence

The first, Emotional Perception, involves such abilities as identifying emotions in faces, music, and stories.

The second, Emotional Facilitation of Thought, involves such abilities as relating emotions to other mental sensations such as taste and color (relations that might be employed in artwork), and using emotion in reasoning and problem solving. (Also: "integrating emotions in thought," Mayer and Cobb)

The third area, Emotional Understanding involves solving emotional problems such as knowing which emotions are similar, or opposites, and what relations they convey.

The fourth area, Emotional Management involves understanding the implications of social acts on emotions and the regulation of emotion in self and others.

From Selecting a Measure of Emotional Intelligence: The case for ability scales (2000)
The ability to process emotional information, particularly as it involves the perception, assimilation, understanding, and management of emotion." Mayer and Cobb (2000)
The ability to:

1. accurately identify emotions
2. use emotions to help you think
3. understand what causes emotions
4 manage to stay open to these emotions in order to capture the wisdom of our feelings

David Caruso, February, 2004 radio interview

The 1997 Mayer Salovey definition

This was the first time Mayer and Salovey detailed their "four branch model" of emotional intelligence. The defenition is extremely thorough and deserves close attention. Unfortunately, this attention has not often been given it though, at least not in publications on the net.

They introduce the model by saying that the four branches in their chart are:

"arranged from more basic psychological processes to higher, more psychologically integrated processes. For example, the lowest level branch concerns the (relatively) simple abilities of perceiving and expressing emotion. In contrast, the highest level branch concerns the conscious, reflective regulation of emotion."

They add that abilities that emerge relatively early in development are to the left of a given branch; later developing abilities are to the right." And they also say that, "people high in emotional intelligence are expected to progress more quickly through the abilities designated and to master more of them." (From What is Emotional Intelligence, by John Mayer and Peter Salovey)

Here is a copy of their 1997 chart:


The Four branches of EI:

1. Perception Appraisal and Expression of Emotion
2. Emotional Facilitation of Thinking
3. Understanding and Analyzing Emotions; Employing Emotional Knowledge
4. Reflective Regulation of Emotions to Promote Emotional and Intellectual Growth

Perception, Appraisal and Expression of Emotion

Ability to identify emotion in one's physical states, feelings, and thoughts. Ability to identify emotions in other people, designs, artwork, etc. through language, sound, appearance, and behavior. Ability to express emotions accurately, and to express needs related to those feelings. Ability to discriminate between accurate and inaccurate, or honest vs. dishonest expressions of feeling.

Emotional Facilitation of Thinking

Emotions prioritize thinking by directing attention to important information. Emotions are sufficiently vivid and available that they can be generated as aids to judgment and memory concerning feelings. Emotional mood swings change the individual's perspective from optimistic to pessimistic, encouraging consideration of multiple points of view. Emotional states differentially encourage specific problem-solving approaches such as when happiness facilitates inductive reasoning and creativity.

Understanding and Analyzing Emotions; Employing Emotional Knowledge

Ability to label emotions and recognize relations among the words and the emotions themselves, such as the relation between liking and loving. Ability to interpret the meanings that emotions convey regarding relationships, such as that sadness often accompanies a loss. Ability to understand complex feelings: simultaneous feelings of love and hate or blends such as awe as a combination of fear and surprise. Ability to recognize likely transitions among emotions, such as the transition from anger to satisfaction or from anger to shame.

Reflective Regulation of Emotion to Promote Emotional and Intellectual Growth

Ability to stay open to feelings, both those that are pleasant and those that are unpleasant. Ability to reflectively engage or detach from an emotion depending upon its judged informativeness or utility. Ability to reflectively monitor emotions in relation to oneself and others, such as recognizing how clear, typical, influential or reasonable they are. Ability to manage emotion in oneself and others by moderating negative emotions and enhancing pleasant ones, without repressing or exaggerating information they may convey.

Return to top of page on EI definitions

See my concerns about this definition

My Concerns about the Mayer - Salovey Definition

I have a few concerns about their definition and some suggestions I would like them to consider.

1. Is intelligence potential, or is it skill and competency?

Here is some of my early writing related to this question:

I would like to see Mayer and Salovey focus more on the idea that intelligence is potential. An infant can be intelligent, for example, without being able to read, write or take intelligence tests. In other words, he may have no demonstrable abilities as yet, but he may have extremely high potential ability. He simply has not had a chance to develop his potential and his intelligence into competencies which can be measured by any existing tests.

The word "ability" itself can have two meanings. First, it can mean potential, yet undeveloped ability. Second, it can mean potential which has been developed into something which can be demonstrated, measured or tested. At present it is impossible to measure pure potential, thus the MSC tests (MEIS and MSCEIT) focus on only the second form of ability. (I suspect, though, that one day brain scanning devices will be able to tells us much more about a baby's potential.)

In 2007 I added this articles to the site.

Ability, Skill and Potential - This article discusses a key problem with the Mayer Salovey definition of EI and with the Mayer Salovey Caruso test (MSCEIT). The problem is their use of the word "ability".

2. Innate EI and emotional damage during life

The Mayer Salovey definition, along with the way they discuss EI in their writing, ignores the fact that a child can start out with high innate emotional intelligence and then be emotionally damaged. (I discuss this further in my section on EI vs EQ.) I would like to see them address this more in their work.

3. Emotional Vocabulary

I would like to see Mayer and Salovey address the fact that an emotionally intelligent person is capable of mastering an extensive vocabulary of what I call feeling words. By mastering I mean having the ability to not only perceive an extensive range of feelings in oneself and others, but also to quickly assign the most specific label to the feeling, for example in conversation with others or in self-reflection. In some of their writing MSC do include the ability to express emotion as part of their first branch of EI, but they seem to limit their test to only a few emotions compared with the much broader available scope of feeling words which are available in the English language.

In common language we often think a person is "intelligent" when they have a large vocabulary and can use it precisely. I believe this same concept applies to emotional intelligence. But again, if a person is never specifically taught to use feeling words, it does not necessarily mean they did not have high innate emotional intelligence, nor that they cannot later expand their emotional vocabulary.

4. Emotional Knowledge

in the section on emotional understanding much of this is probably better called emotional knowledge than an aspect of emotional intelligence itself. Knowledge can be taught but intelligence represents potential before any learning has taken place. Of course, if one is more intelligent, emotionally or otherwise, this learning takes place faster and can go further.

5. Testing for EI

This concern is with measuring emotional facilitation of thought and emotional management. I don't see how you can really do this with a paper and pencil test. The MSC team say they are measuring some of these things with their tests, but it is hard to say how much their test scores reflect actual ability in real life situations, or when under extreme stress. And these are the situations when highly developed emotional intelligence may be the most important.

6. Abstractness

Finally their definition is a bit too abstract for me when it comes to things like identifying emotion in art and music. I found this section of their CD ROM test a little hard to take seriously when it asks you to look at a graphic design and try to guess what emotions it is conveying. Therefore I would like to see them test for something like the ability to identify emotion in tone of voice or body language instead.

My adaptation of the Mayer Salovey definition

1. Emotional identification, perception and expression

  • The ability to perceive and identify emotions in faces, tone of voice, body language
  • The capacity for self-awareness: being aware of your own feelings as they are occurring
  • The capacity for emotional literacy. Being able to label specific feelings in yourself and others; being able to discuss emotions and communicate clearly and directly.

2. Emotional facilitation of thought

  • The ability to incorporate feelings into analysis, reasoning, problem solving and decision making
  • The potential of your feelings to guide you to what is important to think about

3. Emotional understanding

  • The ability to solve emotional problems
  • The ability to identify and understand the inter-relationships beween emotions, thoughts and behavior. For example, to see cause and effect relationships such as how thoughts can affect emotions or how emotions can affect thoughts, and how your emotions can lead to the behavior in yourself and others.
  • The ability to understand the value of emotions to the survival of the species

4. Emotional management

  • The ability to take responsibility for one's own emotions and happiness
  • The ability to turn negative emotions into positive learning and growing opportunities
  • The ability to help others identify and benefit from their emotions

Previous Hein Definitions

Here are two of my earlier definitios of EI

The mental ability we are born with which gives our emotional sensitivity and potential for emotional management skills that help us maximize our long term health, happiness and survival.


Knowing how to separate healthy from unhealthy feelings and how to turn negative feelings into positive ones.

Other Definitions of Emotional Intelligence on the Net

Here are other examples of definitions of EI on the Net

    My comments
Six Seconds “The capacities to create optimal results in your relationships with yourself and others.” (more) Way too broad. Says nothing about emotions.
Lea Brovedani Emotional intelligence is being able to recognize, name and appropriately deal with the emotions that we feel and experience. We may all feel anger, emotional intelligence is knowing what to do with the emotion of anger to achieve the best possible outcome. Not too bad, but narrow.
Reuven BarOn "an array of noncognitive capabilities, competencies, and skills that influence one's ability to succeed in coping with environmental demands and pressures". Non-cognitive means not related to iintelligence. saying "to succeed" is too subjective
EI Consortium * need to get  
Maurice Elias Emotional intelligence is the set of abilities that we like to think of as being on the other side of the report card from the academic skills. See my full critique of this
Inst. for Emotionally Intelligent Living The ability to sense and use emotions to more effectively manage ourselves and influence positive outcomes in our relationships with others. Not too bad, but word effectively is subjective.
A management consulting firm in Australia Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to regulate your impulses, face obstacles and empathize with others. Impulse regulation isn't part of emotional intelligence.
Jack Mayer's Website * need to get  
Byron Stock Emotional Intelligence (EI) is the ability to acquire and apply knowledge from your emotions and the emotions of others. You can use the information about what you're feeling to help you make effective decisions about what to say or do (or not say or do) next. I like this pretty well.

Need to find...

Emotional intelligence is your ability to acquire and apply knowledge from your emotions and the emotions of others in order to be more successful and lead a more fulfilling life.

More from Six Seconds

This is a quote from this page on their site. ** need link

In 1997, Six Seconds’ team sought to take those best-practices and create a framework for teaching and practicing the skills of EQ. They went beyond the scientific definition to capture the practical value of the concepts that are worth teaching and learning. Their definition of emotional intelligence is, “The capacities to create optimal results in your relationships with yourself and others.”


1. For example, Howard Gardner in "A case against spiritual intelligence."

Dec 17, 2007 Email from a reader

Dear Steve,
"Emotional intelligence is the innate potential to feel, use, communicate, recognize, remember, learn from, manage, understand and explain emotions."

Maybe "the potential to describe emotions" should be in there, too.  It may seem at first glance to be simply a redundant reiteration of 'communicate' and 'explain' emotions, but I think that the word 'describe' also includes describing emotions -to oneself-, in order to better understand them, etc., and not merely communication or explanation of emotions to others.  Describing emotions is also not so much tied with causality and time as explaining emotions, although the two tie in with one another.  The description of an emotion really comprises the use of metaphors and analogies, including comparison with other, similar emotions, and all manner of other analogous things, in order to better incorporate an emotion into one's verbal and intellectual understanding, so that it can be really focussed on as a matter of concentration.

I think that the description of feelings using metaphors form part of the basis of human language.  It helps refine our understanding of feelings by comparing feelings to concrete things and already-extant mental concepts.  I would bet that all of our words which we now use to mean certain feelings themselves started off as metaphors for something, either some object or action which was similar to the feeling or connected to it in some way, like, for instance, the sound one makes when one is angry, or some animal or natural process which seems to be 'angry'.  Ancient humans would then have begun developing their self-consciousness and emotional intelligence, which aided them in caring for their tribesmen, etc., and probably played and integral role in the survival of the human species through all of the catastrophes and ice ages of our past.

Peace and Wisdom,

- M.


June 2005 Definition

Emotional intelligence is the innate potential to feel, use, communicate, recognize, remember, learn from, manage, and understand emotions.

Here is something which I added to the Wikipedia page on emotional intelligence but has been deleted. If you agree that it is a useful addition to the Wikipedia page, pleae add it again.

An alternative model, which views emotional intelligence as an innate potential has been proposed by Hein (2005, 2007). This model defines emotional intelligence as "the innate potential to feel, use, communicate, recognize, remember, describe, identify, learn from, manage, understand and explain emotions." This model suggests an individual may be born with high emotional intelligence, yet later act in ways which are unhealthy, anti-social or self-destructive due to their environment and experiences. The model also suggests that current tests can not accurately measure emotional intelligence by looking at an adolescent's or an adult's emotional skills, emotional knowledge and behavior, since all of those are significantly influenced by one's environment and experiences. <ref name="heindef">Hein, S. (2005, 2007) [http://www.eqi.org/eidefs.htm "Definitions of Emotional Intelligence"] </ref>


feb 16, 2012

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to identify, assess, and control the emotions of oneself, of others, and of groups.

So if a person has access to a gun and can use it to scare others - ie controlling their emotions -- they are emotionally intelligent?