Emotional Intelligence: The Ability Model

While the concept of EI (the knowledge of, and ability, to influence emotions of others, as well as yourself) may sound relatively straightforward, there's actually quite a lot of debate among researchers and scholars as to what the precise nature of Emotional Intelligence is. There have been five models proposed as a means of better defining EI: the Ability Model, the Trait Model, the Mixed Model, the Bar-On model, and the Genos model.

The Ability Model of Emotional Intelligence is to be considered a new intelligence and confined thereby to the standard criteria for all new intelligence. The original research supporting this model initially defined EI as "the ability to perceive emotion, integrate emotion to facilitate thoughts, understand emotions, and regulate emotions to promote personal growth." Thus, the Ability Model recognizes that EI includes four distinct types of ability:

  • Emotional perception. Through facial expression, body language, pictures, voices, and so on, a person can recognize the emotions of others. This also includes the individual's ability to recognize and identify their own emotions as well. Emotion perception is generally thought to be a very basic aspect of Emotional Intelligence, because it is necessary to complete any of the other processes involved in the Ability Model. In fact, the difficulty that people on the autism spectrum have with learning social cues is related to their inability, or limited ability, to recognize the emotions of others through their expressions; they often lack the ability to recognize the facial and body expressions of others that communicate their feelings.
  • Use of emotion. The second activity proposed by the Ability Model relates to a person's ability to use emotions -- whether it is their own emotions or another person's emotions -- in order to achieve a desired outcome. When thinking and problem-solving, emotions often must be considered, and a person skilled at using emotions can typically make decisions based primarily on the emotions or moods of themselves or others. In practical terms, think of a child who knows the best time to ask their parents for permission to do something; the child who asks for permission during a time when a parent is fearful, anxious, or angry, is less likely to be successful at using emotions. However, if they strike while the iron is hot and use any goodwill their parent has at the moment to their advantage, they are more likely to achieve their desired outcome.
  • Understanding emotions. This ability is built upon an understanding of the complexity of emotions. While many people have the ability to recognize basic facial expressions, fewer of them are able to predictably recognize and understand emotion language and to appreciate the nuances of complex emotional relationships. A lower ability to understand emotions may present itself in someone who struggles with understanding why a death or divorce may result in seemingly conflicted emotions all at the same time.
  • Managing emotions. Managing emotions relates more specifically to someone's ability (or lack thereof) to regulate emotions in both themselves and others. As the highest level of ability in the Ability Model, someone with high Emotional Intelligence would be expected to be able to manipulate the moods of themselves or others, essentially harnessing the mood and managing it to achieve their goals. While emotional manipulation is generally thought of as negative, it can serve extremely important purposes and does not necessarily have to be used in a detrimental way, as people typically conceive it to be. For example, a supervisor at a job may recognize that an employee is struggling with something emotionally and it is affecting their work. The supervisor (if they have a high level of Emotional Intelligence, according to the Ability Model) may be able to help motivate the employee by meeting their emotional needs through pep talks, a heart-to-heart conversation, or even a spirit of competition -- whatever that individual employee will respond to. In this type of situation, the emotional manipulation is positive for both the individual being manipulated or affected, as well as solving the problem of having an ineffective worker.

Interestingly, the workplace seems to be on one area where the Ability Model sometimes lacks predictive validity. One of the main criticisms of the Ability Model is that for all its focus on how Emotional Intelligence affects performance in a number of settings, there have been many studies that challenge its validity based on a lack of success in predicting job performance.

The current measurement method for the Ability Model of EI is a series of emotion-based problem-solving items. Because the Ability Model interprets EQ as a true intelligence, the test is modeled on cognitive ability-based IQ tests. The problem-solving items are designed to test a person's abilities on each of the four ability types identified in the model. The evaluation is scored in a consensus fashion as the Ability Model requires an appreciation of social mores. Because the test (unlike a standard IQ test) cannot offer objective scoring, it is thus measured against a worldwide sample of respondents in order to determine that it does, in fact, adhere to social norms.

The most notable aspect of the Ability Model is how dependent it is on the concept that EI is required to incorporate purposeful mental processes, rather than simple emotional response. Put another way, the Ability Theory requires more thinking and involves less intuition. Proponents of the Ability Theory believe that it can be dramatically improved through training and is not necessarily dependent upon one's natural ability. Because of this distinction, this model of EI and its use are provided to businesses and schools as a means of developing management skills and human resource development. In some ways, the Ability Model of Emotional Intelligence views the use of emotion in highly pragmatic terms. While it doesn't seek to negate the validity of emotions, it definitely views emotions as a tool that can be used to achieve goals, and that having a high Emotional Intelligence means the individual is capable of controlling and using their own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. Some psychologists have criticized the Ability Model as focusing too highly on the intellectual aspects of how emotion can be used, rather than an individual's ability to recognize and appreciate emotions as their own legitimate experience outside of cognitive function. Others believe the Ability Model to be too predisposed to Machiavellian tenancies.

Like virtually all aspects of psychology, there is much to gain from the Ability Model, even for those who don't believe it to be the most accurate model of Emotional Intelligence. The concept of utilizing emotions in positive, productive ways is certainly a helpful ability to have, whether or not it is completely indicative of a person's overall Emotional Intelligence or not.

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Some of the limitations of the Ability Model of EI relate to the standards of measurement. While many people consider the Ability Model to be the most scientifically researched of the models of Emotional Intelligence, because it is measured using objective standards, others are concerned it is inaccurate for that exact same reason. Using social norms and patterns of behavior based on a global scale seems in theory to be an ideal way of measuring EQ (assuming your definition of EQ and its values are the same as the Ability Model). But some researchers are concerned that this global comparison of completely objective measures does not necessarily accurately reflect an individual's EQ, particularly because it is attempting to objectively measure some characteristics that are subjective by definition.

The Trait Model of EI

The Trait Model of Emotional Intelligence was first developed by psychologist Konstantin Vasily Petrides and provides a very different understanding of Emotional Intelligence than the Ability Model. While the Ability Model is highly pragmatic and focuses on outward results, the Trait Model is geared more toward emotional self-perception. Essentially, Trait EI evaluates how an individual perceives their emotional abilities. These emotional abilities, and their perception of them, then affect their behaviors and perceived cognitive and behavioral abilities. This construct can also be referred to as emotional self-efficacy as it resides almost wholly in the perceptions of the individual, rather than by any objective measures. Because of this, Trait EI is highly resistant to any academic or scientific measurement. While this is true of most self-reporting, the complete lack of any objective measures in the Trait Model makes it particularly difficult to prove or disprove.

Nevertheless, this is actually not as far off as it may seem from the overall definition of Emotional Intelligence. Throughout different models of Emotional Intelligence, they all come back to the same essential qualities: the understanding and regulation of one's own emotions and the understanding and regulation (or adaptation due to) the emotions of others. While the Trait Model is very different from the Ability Model, they both still reflect these core elements. For the Trait Model, the role of self-perception obviously affects the recognition and regulation of the person's own emotions. The recognition and regulation of the emotions of others within the Trait Model construct is the recognition that many people have the ability to comprehend and affect others in a natural and virtually effortless way when they recognize and play to their own individual natural personality characteristics. In other words, the Trait Theory relies on the assumption that once a person is able to recognize and utilize their own emotions and the strengths of their personality, they will then be well-equipped to understand and regulate the emotions of those with whom they interact.

The Trait Model of Emotional Intelligence essentially has to be conducted within a framework of understanding an individual's personality. Because it relies so heavily on personality characteristics, it is impossible to evaluate someone's EQ using the Trait Model without performing (either previously or simultaneously) a personality evaluation. But because it relies so much on personality, some psychologists do not believe that the Trait Model of EQ has validity as a measure of EQ at all, because it relies so heavily on personality. Some EQ theorists believe that EQ is meant to be within the framework of cognitive-emotional ability, rather than personality characteristics. Facets of personalities that relate directly to Emotional Intelligence, which are measured within the Trait Model, include adaptability, assertiveness, emotion expression, emotion management of others, emotion perception (of self and others), emotion regulation, impulsiveness, relationships, self-esteem, self-motivation, social awareness, stress management, trait empathy, trait happiness, and trait optimism.

The Trait Model has historically been evaluated using self reports in a variety of formats. Typically, these evaluations include limited measures of personality characteristics and traits, rather then cognitive abilities or skills. Over time, the Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire, a thorough evaluation using the Trait Model, has been utilized and researched in many different countries around the world. The Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire encompasses 15 sub-scales within the context of four major factors: self-control, well being, emotionality, and sociability. The psychometric properties of this evaluation have been investigated in different countries and scores have been found to be normally distributed and reliable on a global scale. Recent studies, when comparing the Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire with other EI tests, have found it to be particularly valid scientifically. The success of this test, particularly given the fact that it is based on self reporting, has presented researchers of EI with better methods of self-report and subjective evaluations that may be more reliable than previously understood. It has also lent much more credence to the legitimacy of the Trait Model.

Moreover, researchers also found that the scores from the Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire have been found to relate positively to some of the Big Five personality traits, (as expected) as well as inversely related to other characteristics of the Big Five. Researchers also found the scores of this test were unrelated to nonverbal reasoning, which has been interpreted as support for the interpretation of EQ as being personality-based, as opposed to true intelligence-based. Many genetic studies have also been completed with the Trait Model, which have found statistically significant genetic characteristics for all aspects of Trait EI.

Much of the research currently being done on EI as an overall theory is being conducted using the Trait Model. Because the Trait Model recognizes the inherent subjectivity of human emotion, it provides a much broader domain for research. Of course, some of this research can be performed incorrectly, even assuming that all self-reporting is valid and relevant for their EI research; self-reporting is so poorly received in the scientific setting for a number of reasons. The success of the Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire should not be indicative or validating to all (or even most) other research into EI.

One of the more compelling and convincing arguments for the Trait Model of EI is that, unlike the Ability Model, it recognizes that certain personality characteristics and emotional responses may be ideal or positive in certain situations, but may not be ideal for other situations. What makes someone great at their job, for example, may be the same characteristics that may make them a less successful spouse or parent. The characterization of an individual is understood to be different in terms of advantage, based on different scenarios, which essentially creates an adaptive value of Emotional Intelligence. The Trait Model, because it does not recognize any ideal level or type of EQ, may make research into EQ more comprehensive and allow for more individualization, but it certainly does not lend itself to use within a professional capacity, such as using EQ to hire, manage, or train employees.

When it comes to EQ, there is a general assumption that changing or maximizing your Emotional Intelligence is worthwhile and always a positive endeavor. Trait Theory somewhat challenges this assumption. Although it acknowledges that there is some room for change and growth, it also adheres to the idea that most of your personality is ingrained. Because it relies so heavily on personality characteristics, this model holds that a certain level of your EQ and EQ-related behaviors will stem from your automatic responses, rather than learned or changed ones. Moreover, Trait theory does not necessarily promote the concept that changing your EQ is good. Because it allows for a level of adaptability, it therefore must respect that while someone's Emotional Intelligence may lack in certain ways, it may be excellent in other ways, given different circumstances. Therefore, many proponents of the Trait Model argue that unless a person demonstrates emotional or personality disorders or unhealthy patterns, it is not necessarily feasible or realistic, fair, or accurate to promote certain characteristics and emotional behaviors over others.

While the Trait Model and Ability Model clearly both seek the knowledge and power to change emotions, many researchers and scientists hold that they are in two completely separate constructs. This distinction is important because it recognizes that any necessary changes to the operationalization of one theory does not require changes to the operationalization of the other.