New Research Challenges Assumptions about Age, Emotional Intelligence

There are many assumptions about emotional intelligence and age. Popular literature and “common sense” asset that older people are more aware, wise and restrained, but is this true?

San Mateo, Calif. — Jan. 31
There are many assumptions about emotional intelligence and age. Popular literature and “common sense” assert older people are wiser and more aware, but is this true?

Existing research indicates a slight relationship between emotional intelligence and age.

Using the Six Seconds’ Emotional Intelligence Assessment (SEI), a study of 405 Americans shows emotional intelligence (EQ) increases slightly with age. The relationship is r = 0.13 (p < 0.01) — slight but significant.

Lorenzo Fariselli, Six Seconds Italia researcher, conducted the analysis.

“The finding suggests emotional intelligence is a developing ability,” Fariselli said. “It is likely that accumulated life experiences contribute to EQ.”

The study also challenges many popular beliefs about “with age comes wisdom” and the widespread perception of a generation gap in motivation and altruism.

The relationship between EQ and age is very slight — while a majority of older people are higher in EQ, there are many young people with higher EQ scores than their older counterparts.

In addition, some of the aspects of EQ can only be developed through training.

So, in an era where emotional intelligence is a critical competence for success, this finding shows young people committed to their own development have a edge.

The study examined three aspects of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management and self-direction.

Self-awareness, called “Know Yourself” in the SEI assessment, increases slightly with age.

“We hypothesize that as people grow, they have more opportunity to learn about emotions and the gradations of emotions, increase emotional vocabulary and experience more and more varied life situations,” Fariselli said. “Perhaps they accumulate more feedback and integrate this into greater self-awareness.”

Again, age is only mildly predictive of this dimension, so there are many younger people with a highly developed self-awareness and many older people who have not developed these competencies.

Meanwhile, self-management, called “Choose Yourself” in this model, does not increase with age.

This suggests the competencies in this part of the model (navigate emotions, exercise optimism, engage intrinsic motivation and apply consequential thinking) need specific training to develop.

In other words, it is less likely these “automatically” will develop through life experience.

The strongest effect is in self-direction, where age predicts 3.9 percent of the development of a set of skills called “Give Yourself.”

There are two specific skills in this area, empathy (noticing and appropriately responding to others’ feelings) and pursue noble goals (using principles and values to drive behaviors).

Massimiliano Ghini is president of Six Seconds Italia and a leading authority on using emotional intelligence to improve business results.

His hypothesis of the link between “Give Yourself” and age comes from the responsibilities of adulthood.

“For many people, adulthood and aging introduce increased need and opportunity to connect with and lead others, for example, engaging a team or developing an organization’s vision,” he said. “As people age, they have more opportunities to practice these skills.”

Again, the link between age and “Give Yourself” is modest — age is no guarantee for vision and wisdom.