Recognizing when a friend or colleague feels sad, angry or surprised is key to getting along with others. But a new study suggests that a knack for eavesdropping on feelings may sometimes come with an extra dose of stress. This and other research challenge the prevailing view that emotional intelligence is uniformly beneficial to its bearer.
In a study published in the September 2016 issue of Emotion, psychologists Myriam Bechtoldt and Vanessa Schneider of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management in Germany asked 166 male university students a series of questions to measure their emotional smarts. For example, they showed the students photographs of people's faces and asked them to what extent feelings such as happiness or disgust were being expressed. The students then had to give job talks in front of judges displaying stern facial expressions. The scientists measured concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol in the students' saliva before and after the talk.
In students who were rated more emotionally intelligent, the stress measures increased more during the experiment and took longer to go back to baseline. The findings suggest that some people may be too emotionally astute for their own good, says Hillary Anger Elfenbein, a professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis, who was not involved in the study. “Sometimes you can be so good at something that it causes trouble,” she notes.
Indeed, the study adds to previous research hinting at a dark side of emotional intelligence. A study published in 2002 in Personality and Individual Differences suggested that emotionally perceptive people might be particularly susceptible to feelings of depression and hopelessness. Furthermore, several studies, including one published in 2013 in PLOS ONE, have implied that emotional intelligence can be used to manipulate others for personal gain.
More research is needed to see how exactly the relation between emotional intelligence and stress would play out in women and in people of different ages and education levels. Nevertheless, emotional intelligence is a useful skill to have, as long as you learn to also properly cope with emotions—both others' and your own, says Bechtoldt, a professor of organizational behavior. For example, some sensitive individuals may assume responsibility for other people's sadness or anger, which ultimately stresses them out. Remember, Bechtoldt says, “you are not responsible for how other people feel.”