Can emotional intelligence lead you astray?

4474619288_463dc89a99_o (2) Some personality traits seem obviously desirable. Who would not want to have above-average humour, intelligence or self- confidence? So it is surprising that high emotional intelligence is associated with so-called “delinquent” behaviour – from school truancy and smoking cannabis to physical aggression – in female adolescents. By contrast, males with relatively high emotional intelligence tend to engage in fewer socially transgressive acts.

Like general intelligence, emotional intelligence (EI) is largely seen as a good thing. Self-report tests of EI assess our ability to understand and react appropriately to emotional states, both in ourselves and in others. Higher EI scores are associated with positive achievement in education and work, better physical and mental health, and – not surprisingly – higher quality of social relationships. So why should they also be associated with “antisocial” behaviour in females?

Alison Bacon of the School of Psychology at Plymouth University led the project, which used questionnaires to assess levels of emotional intelligence and sensation-seeking (SS) in a sample of university students. Another questionnaire asked which of a range of delinquent behaviours each student had engaged in since the age of twelve.

Overall, they found a complex relationship between the three factors – SS, EI and sex (female/male) – for predicting adolescent delinquency. Both female and male students who scored high on sensation-seeking were more likely to engage in delinquency, as expected from earlier studies. Also expected was the finding that, for males, the impact of high sensation-seeking was offset when they also had higher levels of emotional intelligence, reducing the likelihood of delinquent behaviour.

For females, higher sensation-seeking was directly associated with higher emotional intelligence, a correlation not found males. Most strikingly, for females, both higher SS and higher EI predicted more delinquent acts since the age of twelve.

“Levels of sensation seeking – where you actively seek out novel experiences – peak in adolescence, and there is a well-documented association of them with delinquency and other risk-taking behaviours,” says Alison Bacon. “In general, high trait EI individuals are able to form positive and effective personal relationships and are able to regulate their emotions and behaviours in ways that support personal well-being. We predicted the relationship between sensation seeking and delinquent behaviour would be affected by EI, but to discover it seemingly only lessened delinquency in young men – and not young women – was a surprising and unprecedented result.”

The explanation for this unexpected effect is still being investigated. A key lesson is that our diverse personality traits interact in their effects on our behaviours. In a working environment requiring teamwork, for example, self-confidence might be desirable if you are socially sensitive and also possess the necessary skills for your job, but counter-productive if not.

The effect of emotional intelligence on delinquency could arise, at least in part, from how EI boosts our ability to form strong social bonds, particularly regarding members of the opposite sex. One beguiling possibility – yet to be tested – is that females with higher EI have a broader range of relationships with males. A wider circle of close male friends may increase the likelihood of being encouraged into riskier or more transgressive behaviour.

Male adolescents are more likely to drive when drunk, set fire to a building or beat someone up. For the small minority of females who get involved in such behaviour, there may be an element of peer-pressure from male boyfriends or acquaintances. There is less evidence of similar pressures to delinquency from females to males.

It should be remembered that these participants in the study were university students. While the levels of overall delinquency appear representative, incidence of the most socially unacceptable behaviours was relatively low. It remains to be seen whether female emotional intelligence is positively associated with serious criminality.

Testing personality

Three different style of questionnaire were used in this study.

The Delinquent Behaviour Scale questionnaire required participants to indicate whether or not they had engaged in a range of behaviours. There were 35 questions relating to delinquent acts, such as truancy, cheating in exams, cannabis use, arson and assault. There were also 20 neutral items, such as being admitted to hospital and doing jury service. The neutral items were included to reduce participants’ sense that they were incriminating themselves as socially transgressive with their positive responses.

The Sensation Seeking Scale questionnaire included 40 items, each with two response choices. One response for each item indicated a higher level of sensation-seeking: e.g., “I like to try new foods I have never tasted before” vs “I stick with dishes I know I like to avoid disappointment.”

The Trait Emotional Intelligence questionnaire included 40 statements, such as: “Expressing my emotions with words is not a problem for me” and “I usually find it difficult to regulate my emotions.”
Each statement was responded to on a seven-point Likert scale, where a score of
1 means “completely disagree” and a score of 7 means “completely agree.”

Further reading

Bacon, A. M., Burak, H., & Rann, J. (2014). Sex differences in the relationship between sensation seeking, trait emotional intelligence and delinquent behaviour. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 25(6), 673-683.

Picture credit: Peter Briones via cc.

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