John D. Mayer, professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire, replies:
A cautious answer is that psychologists still are not sure whether adults can enhance their emotional intelligence. Current research suggests, however, that people can almost surely increase their emotional competence.
To explain the distinction, I first need to define these terms. Emotional intelligence is the ability to reason about emotions and emotional information, which includes recognizing, understanding and managing feelings in ourselves. Psychologists view intelligence as mental capacities. Demonstrating an increase in a person's potential to learn something is very difficult, which is why we do not know whether emotional intelligence can improve.
In contrast, emotional competence—a person's emotional functioning or ability to learn about emotions—is relatively straightforward to measure. The largest review of curricula in social and emotional learning, which aggregated studies with thousands of participants, indicated that the programs improve students' social interactions, well-being and sometimes even academic achievement. The few studies that have focused exclusively on adult learning appear to follow the same pattern, so there is good reason to believe that emotional knowledge and functioning can be enhanced in adulthood.
Finally, I would ask: Is it worth improving our emotional functioning? Some pundits overestimate the importance of emotional intelligence—saying, for example, that emotional intelligence explains more than 85 percent of outstanding performance in top leaders and that emotional intelligence—not IQ—predicts exemplary performance. My colleagues and I have never found such claims to be true. Rather we have uncovered more modest benefits, namely that greater emotional intelligence can improve relationships and happiness over time.
Individuals can find success in many ways and may not feel the need to improve emotional intelligence. But those who do want to learn about their emotions may be pleased with the rewards.