May 26, 2010

Feelings of Intense Fear & Happiness – More Is Better for Emotional Intelligence

Over the last decade or so, emotional intelligence has been a hot topic for books, psychotherapy, and research. A lot of the credit for this must go to Daniel Goleman, whose Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ essentially launched public interest in this topic.

For those who haven’t been following the trend in this field, here is a brief, edited summary article from the original researchers (see references below) :

The Four Branch Model of Emotional Intelligence

The four branch model of emotional intelligence describes four areas of capacities or skills that collectively describe many of areas of emotional intelligence (Mayer & Salovey, 1997). More specifically, this model defines emotional intelligence as involving the abilities to:

  • accurately perceive emotions in oneself and others
  • use emotions to facilitate thinking
  • understand emotional meanings, and
  • manage emotions


By the late 1980’s, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, psychiatrists, computer scientists, and others, had identified a number of human capacities involved in identifying and understanding emotions. These human capacities — involving emotional information processing — had been examined in scores of research articles.

One means of organizing the many research contributions was to divide them into different areas according to the nature of the abilities they examined. In 1990, Salovey and I proposed that these abilities made up a unitary emotional intelligence. We further suggested that emotional intelligence (and the research that pertained to it) could be divided into three broad areas (and further sub-areas), as shown in Figure 1 of this article. After further reviews, we saw the need to add an additional area. The full four-branch model was published in 1997 in Figure 1.1 of this book chapter.

What Are the Four Branches?

1. PERCEIVING EMOTION. The initial, most basic, area has to do with the nonverbal reception and expression of emotion. Evolutionary biologists and psychologists have pointed out that emotional expression evolved in animal species as a form of crucial social communication. Facial expressions such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear, were universally recognizable in human beings.

2. USING EMOTIONS TO FACILITATE THOUGHT. The second area appeared every bit as basic as the first. This was the capacity of the emotions to enter into and guide the cognitive system and promote thinking.

3. UNDERSTANDING EMOTIONS. Emotions convey information: Happiness usually indicates a desire to join with other people; anger indicates a desire to attack or harm others; fear indicates a desire to escape, and so forth. Each emotion conveys its own pattern of possible messages, and actions associated with those messages.

Once a person can identify such messages and potential actions, the capacity to reason with and about those emotional messages and actions becomes of importance as well. Fully understanding emotions, in other words, involves the comprehension of the meaning of emotions, coupled with the capacity to reason about those meanings. It is central to this group of emotionally intelligent skills.

(For a more advanced discussion of emotional information, see the section, “Similarities and Differences Between Emotional and Cognitive Information” in this article).

4. MANAGING EMOTIONS. Finally, emotions often can be managed. A person needs to understand emotions convey information. To the extent that it is under voluntary control, a person may want to remain open to emotional signals so long as they are not too painful, and block out those that are overwhelming.

Other Comments on the Four Branch Model

  • The term, “branch,” came into use in reference to the figures that presented the precursor and present models. Figures in both papers (1990 & 1997) contained lines that branched off from a central point. So, the term “branch” conveys no specific scientific meaning; calling the model a “four-area model” would have worked as well.
  • The branches are arranged from the areas most specifically related to the emotions-area (perceiving emotions) to the areas most general to personality (managing emotions).
  • Within each branch, skills can be identified that are early-developing (e.g., in childhood), and skills that await greater maturity.
  • This four-branch model represents what today has become called the ability model of emotional intelligence.

Goleman ran with this research and in 1995 published his now famous book. The original researchers feel he has gone too far with their findings, extending them into too many fields where the correlations do not hold up. I am not trying to disparage Goleman, because I have found his work immensely useful, but I just wanted to clarify a bit on the history of this construct. Here is a statement on Goleman’s book from Mayer’s website:

Dr. Goleman’s book is a lively, entertaining journalistic account that covers many interesting studies. His enlargement of our model, however, had the unfortunate effect, of suggesting to some that nearly every human style or capacity that was not IQ itself was a part of emotional intelligence. These included motives, social skills, all forms of self-regulation, and warmth, among many other attributes. The problem with this idea is that those different psychological qualities are separate and independent from one another — both conceptually and empirically (e.g., they do not correlate). Moreover, most of them have little to do directly and specifically either with emotion or intelligence. Lumping them together created considerable conceptual confusion. Today, such models are called “mixed models,” as they mix many attributes unrelated to emotion, intelligence, or emotional intelligence, in with the emotional intelligence concept.

Now that we have laid the groundwork, I want to look at a new piece of research that focuses on the first branch of emotional intelligence, recognition or perception of emotions.

PLoS ONE, an open source science publisher, recently posted new research from Tony W. Buchanan, David Bibas, and Ralph Adolphs that looked at how previous emotional experience impacts the ability to recognize emotions in others. The assumption has existed that the more emotional experience a person has (emotional intelligence), the more likely they would be to see and correctly perceive emotions in others. This is the first study to demonstrate that this is true.

Our study demonstrates for the first time that in the general population emotional experience in real life is reliably associated with the ability to recognize happiness and fear in others. Very weak experiences of both these emotions were associated with less accurate recognition of those particular emotions from the face. Fear experience was further associated with more accurate recognition of happiness and surprise. These findings support the hypothesis that own emotional experience may play a role in recognizing the emotions of other people, either through on-line simulation or through effects during development.

There are several possible explanations for the effect we found. Participants may have implicitly called on their own experience with a particular emotion in order to choose which facial configuration best matched their understanding of how a particular emotion is expressed. Those individuals who reported having a ‘very strong’ experience of fear, for example, may have more ready access to their own facial configuration during a fear experience and therefore more closely match the visual stimulus of fear with the prototypical expression. Recent work has suggested that one’s affective empathy may be a trait-like characteristic, which interacts with the expressivity of others to influence accuracy in labeling the affective expressions of others [14]. Another alternative is that the relationship between reported emotional experience and emotional recognition may reflect the affective beliefs of an individual, rather than the momentary experience of emotion. Retrospective assessments of emotional experience (as used in the current study) are thought to be an index of an individual’s beliefs about their emotional states and may not necessarily reflect actual experiences [15], [16]. As such, it is possible that those individuals reporting high experience of fear may differ from their low-fear counterparts more in terms of their beliefs about emotions and less in terms of actual emotional experience. It is also possible that the reaction to others’ expressions is influenced by tempermental characteristics present at birth. Temperament is known to influence the expression of emotion [17]. The emotional reaction to another’s expression may be determined by a combination of temperamental influences on reactivity coupled with a more nuanced understanding of expressions that develop through learning.

Another possible explanation for these findings is that those who reported having ‘very weak’ emotional experiences may have a different conception of what a fearful or happy face may look like. In either case, stronger experience of emotion may influence an individual toward a more ‘modal’ or prototypical understanding of facial expressions of emotion, making the individual more likely to accurately interpret the social cues of others. Without this experience-enhanced recognition, an individual may not recognize signals from another either as quickly or as accurately.

I think this is important for a couple of reasons.

1) Men notoriously lack emotional intelligence, in general, although this is not because we are incapable of being emotionally intelligent. We are simply not taught to feel our feelings while growing up as boys – some messages I heard as a kid: “boys don’t cry,” “come on now, be a big boy,” “quit acting like a little girl.” [Uh, well, that last one might have something to do with, uh, the dress I was wearing, but that’s a different post.]

We need to raise boys to be in touch with their feelings and understand that this does not make them less masculine. If we do so, they will grow up to be more emotionally intelligent men, which will serve them well in business, make them better friends, and make some woman (or man) very happy as a partner.

2) Emotional intelligence is essential to developing deeper forms of empathy. Goleman has identified three forms of empathy, the first of which is cognitive empathy, the ability to understand how another person is thinking. The next two are the ones that concern me:

The next variety, emotional empathy, refers to someone who feels within herself the emotions of the person she’s with. This creates a sense of rapport, and most probably entails the brain’s mirror neuron system, which activates our own circuits the emotions, movements and intentions we see in the other person. This lets us feel with the other person – but not necessarily feel for, the prerequisite for compassion.

That requires empathic concern, the third variety of empathy. Empathic concern means we not only understand how the person sees things and feels in the moment, but also want to help them if we sense the need. A study of empathic concern in seven-year-olds found that those who showed least concern when they saw their mother in distress were most likely to have a criminal record two decades later.

Goleman believes that the type of emotional recognition they looked at in the study above – reading faces – can be learned and even strengthened. This is important for men, in particular, human beings in general (and especially coaches and therapists).

Empathy can be strengthened – at least some varieties. Paul Ekman, the psychologist who inspired the TV series “Lie To Me,” developed a web-based training tool that lets anyone (at least, me, when I tried it) up their ability to read another person’s emotions from their facial expressions. You can learn to detect super-fast facial tics that reveal a person’s true feelings – a way to sense when they might be lying, or denying that something upsets them, or that they are really attracted to so-and-so despite their protestations to the contrary.

Then there are the studies on “mindsight” of Dr. Daniel Siegel, a child psychiatrist at UCLA, that suggest these are essential human abilities we should be teaching every child.

There are a lot of resources on the web that we can use to improve our ability to recognize emotions in others and become more empathic. The more we do this, the better person we can become. If we all do this, we will create a much more compassionate culture, one person at a time.


Buchanan TW, Bibas D, Adolphs R (2010) Associations between Feeling and Judging the Emotions of Happiness and Fear: Findings from a Large-Scale Field Experiment. PLoS ONE 5(5): e10640. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010640

Mayer, J. D., DiPaolo, M. T., & Salovey, P. (1990). Perceiving affective content in ambiguous visual stimuli: A component of emotional intelligence. Journal of Personality Assessment, 54, 772-781.


Daniel Goleman’s website.

John D. Mayer – Emotional intelligence information.

Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations.

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