Emotionally intelligent people are a force for social good. Those who are experts at reading the room and concerned for the well-being of others are adept at managing their own emotions. But they also console, soothe, and motivate others. From a kind gesture to a therapeutic silence, those with high EI don't always know what to do, but they know how to be.
The British pop band, Starsailor, sang "Thank goodness for the good souls. That make life better". I like to think they were referring to those with high levels of the interconnected psychological traits we call emotional intelligence. Highly emotionally intelligent people do make life better for everyone around.
Since 1995, when Daniel Goleman published the book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, public awareness and appreciation of EI's importance has grown. The general consensus is that this inter-related set of abilities has significant implications across various life domains, from workplaces and battlefields to families and sports teams.
However, research published earlier this month suggests that, at least in western societies, EI is on the decline. The study, titled: "College students in the western world are becoming less emotionally intelligent", was published in the November edition of the Journal of Personality. The research team examined data from 70 studies, looking at the emotional intelligence scores of around 17 thousand European and North American college students spanning two decades, 2001 to 2019. The findings were clear. There was a significant decrease across time in several components of EI, for example, emotion regulation, emotion recognition, relationship skills and empathy.
How has this happened? Why are we becoming less adept at reading the room and controlling our impulses? The study's authors offer a few plausible suggestions. One is that social media is at least partially to blame. Indeed, the rise of social media has coincided with the decline in EI. But how might Twitter, Snapchat and others be responsible for our decreasing levels of empathy? One argument is that social media has increasingly taken the place of in-person interactions, leading to a deterioration in interpersonal skills. As a result, the unpracticed become the unskilled. Our ability to notice facial cues, body language and tone of voice atrophy through lack of use.
Another explanation for the decline in EI is the rising levels of individualism in western nations. This might also be connected to social media use. Social platforms encourage self-disclosure, self-display, and fame-seeking. Our ability to detect (empathy) or even care about (compassion) other people's emotions is reduced when there is a focus solely on oneself.
Over the past few decades, the rise of individualism and related traits (assertiveness, entitlement, and narcissism) has been well documented. Some of this is eloquently summarised by psychology professor Jean Twenge in her book, Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before.
When I read about such social changes in the western world, I think about how this might be playing out in the UAE and other parts of our interconnected world. According to the Hofstede Institute, who are specialists in providing cultural insights, the national culture of the UAE is described as collectivist. In contrast to more individualistic cultures, collectivist societies attach greater value to interdependence and co-operation than independence and competitiveness. It is worth considering how collectivist values might influence social media use, or be shaped by it.
Research published earlier this year in the journal Addictive Disorders reported that excessive and problematic use of social media appears to be more common in collectivist countries. The study grouped 32 nations by cultural values: individualist (independence) versus collectivist (interdependence). The rates of problematic social media use were significantly higher – roughly double – for the collectivist populations (31 per cent) compared to their individualist counterparts (14 per cent).
What, if anything, should we do? Firstly, there is an obvious need for more research that explores social media's psychological and societal implications. Such research needs to be undertaken locally, examining cultural factors that might lessen or worsen the negative impact of such technologies. If social media use really leads to a decrease in emotional intelligence, we need to act. We will need to identify and promote ways of engaging with social media that optimise benefits and minimise costs. Let's call it a digital balance.
Emotional intelligence is at the heart of our well-being and our ability to form meaningful, long-lasting, compassionate relationships. We don't want a world with less of that. If anything, we need more.