Your recent research looks at emotionally-intelligent decision making. How do you define ‘emotional intelligence’?
Some of the most critical skills of emotional intelligence (‘EI’) include empathy, which is the ability to understand how other people feel; emotion understanding, which entails identifying the reasons for your own and other people’s emotions; and regulating your emotions, which involves coping with stress, modifying undesirable emotions and generating desired emotions. Getting rid of anger, for instance, and generating enthusiasm.
We can now measure emotional intelligence, and we know that some people have developed these skills to a greater degree than others. In my research I’m interested in how variations on different aspects of EI relate to how people behave in the workplace. In the case of this particular research, we looked at how EI affects how people make decisions.
In these studies you focused on the ‘emotion understanding’ aspect of EI. Please explain why.
My colleague Jeremy Yip (a recent Rotman PhD graduate who led the research now at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania) and I felt that this was the most relevant aspect of EI for making good decisions. That’s because it predicts whether people will fall prey to the effects of incidental emotions that have nothing to do with the decision at hand.
What are ‘incidental emotions’?
When we make decisions, there are two types of emotions we might feel: incidental and integral. Incidental emotions are the emotions we carry with us to the decision that have nothing to do with the decision. For example, the way you feel because you had an extremely frustrating drive to work, or because you had an argument with your partner before leaving for work that morning. Even though incidental emotions come from other sources, they are brought to a decision-making scenario and are experienced as the decision is made.
For instance, studies show that people have a tendency to allow incidental emotions to influence things like investment decisions. Why? Because these emotions put us in a certain kind of mental mindset, and when a decision is in front of us, we sometimes have a hard time separating these emotions from the way we feel about the decision itself. The question we set out to answer was, ‘Does emotional intelligence—and in particular, emotion-understanding ability—prevent a decision maker from being affected by incidental emotions?’
As opposed to incidental emotions, integral emotions are emotions that are caused by the decision itself. They arrive, for example, when you think about the parameters of the decision or its implications. And these emotions can actually be pretty useful. If thinking through a decision causes you some anxiety, that is useful information: it might be a sign that you need to be very cautious, and that you should potentially be more risk-averse rather than risk-seeking with the decision.
You write that, “People develop the ability to understand emotions via multiple processes.” Please describe a couple.
Childhood is a sensitive period for the acquisition of these skills, and as a result, there is robust evidence showing that parents play a major role in determining whether somebody is good at understanding where their emotions—and other people’s emotions—come from. During childhood, whether or not parents use emotional language with their kids—terms like happy and angry and sad and anxious—and talk about the sources of these emotions, makes a big difference. Parents can say things like, ‘You are feeling anxious right now because you have that Math test tomorrow or that performance later today, and you’re not sure how you’re going to do.’ Later in life, these kids become better at identifying the cause of their emotions.
Another source can be knowledge of Psychology. The extent to which people either take Psychology classes or read about it in books can make them more or less likely develop a toolkit for identifying emotions and their causes. These people are likely to learn, for example, that the reason they feel anxious about something is that they cannot predict or control what’s going to happen to them. They learn that people feel anxious when there’s something coming up where the outcome matters for them, and they cannot control or predict what’s going to happen.
What did you discover about the effects of incidental anxiety on risk taking?
We were interested in whether or not emotional intelligence reduces the effects of incidental emotions on the decision you’re about to make. We wanted to do a strong test of this, so we picked one of the most consistent effects of incidental emotions on decisions. Several studies have shown that if you feel anxiety from your personal life, this will affect how much risk you’re willing to take in your work life and your business decisions. Why? Because anxiety is a signal that there is potential danger lurking, and that therefore, you should be cautious.
Why does your anxiety from your home life affect your work decisions? As I indicated earlier, these emotions stay with us and influence our mental mindsets; they carry over, and we’re not always very good at being aware of where they come from. So we decided to take this very robust effect and see if emotional intelligence removes it.
How did you measure emotion-understanding ability?
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[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]