In a recent international collaboration between the University of Sydney, the University of Oxford, and the University of New South Wales Sydney, researchers explored connections between emotional intelligence (EI) and student academic outcomes. Published in the Psychological Bulletin, MacCann and colleagues study investigated various forms of EI (ability EI, self-rated EI, and mixed EI) in relation to grades and test scores across a variety of academic subjects through meta-analysis.
“This meta-analysis shows that emotional intelligence has a small to moderate association with academic performance, such that students with higher emotional intelligence tend to gain higher grades and achievement test scores,” they write.
Although intelligence and the personality trait known as conscientiousness are still the largest predictors of academic achievement, MacCann and colleagues’ meta-analysis found that EI may be the third largest predictor. Overall, in their analysis, students with higher EI tended to do better in school.
EI refers to the ability to interpret, process, and apply understanding of emotion. Brought to public attention in the mid-1990s by journalist Daniel Goleman, the researchers write that at first, many different versions of EI proliferated. More recently, researchers have attempted to distinguish between ability EI (reflected in skills assessed through tasks requiring application of EI) and self-rated EI (how well do you think you regulate your emotions). Mixed models of EI comprise “a broad mix of constructs that lead to emotionally intelligent behavior, including emotion-related abilities, character traits, and motivational elements.”
MacCann and colleagues theorize that EI may affect academic achievement through various processes. For instance, some students may have more emotional ability to handle test anxiety, boredom, or disappointment over poor grades, which could impact their ability to do well on tests, pay attention in class, or continue working on a subject after an initial failure. Another theory is that students with higher EI have better relationships with their parents, peers, and teachers. Yet another theory is that higher EI may enable students to better understand the emotional context of humanities subjects, such as history and literature. All of these theories were somewhat supported by the results found by the researchers.
The researchers write that “there is evidence that social and emotional learning programs in school are effective and that non-cognitive constructs are powerful predictors of academic performance.”
EI, represented by a variety of measures and methods in a spectrum of studies, has been linked to professional success, health, and wellbeing outcomes among adults. It has been similarly linked to school performance in smaller scale studies. A 2017 meta-analysis revealed that social and emotional learning interventions in schools can produce long-term benefits for students’ wellbeing, and other studies have shown that belongingness can protect against some of the adverse effects of trauma that many students experience. Popular theories of EI map onto models for social and emotional learning in application to school environments. Yet, according to MacCann and the research team, the associated between emotional intelligence and achievement is ripe for synthesis.
From 168 different studies, the researchers identified 1,276 different correlations for analysis, including a vast array of measures of EI as well as various measures of academic performance. The samples were drawn from studies conducted in 27 countries. Researchers accounted for a wide variety of other factors, and tested whether any of them moderated the effect of EI. In general, there were some slight effects found for particular ways of measuring EI, but the factors moderated very little of the effect. For instance, the researchers used data from both published and unpublished studies examining EI and student achievement, hoping to control for publication bias (tendency for negative results to remain unpublished). They found that publication bias did not affect the results.
However, the researchers also assessed intelligence and conscientiousness, both of which have been demonstrated to have a large impact on academic achievement. They found that these factors dwarfed the importance of EI:
“Intelligence was the most important variable (accounting for between 58% and 69% of the explained variance), (b) conscientiousness the second-most important (accounting for between 20% and 21% of the explained variance), and (c) EI the third-most important variable.”
That is, intelligence and conscientiousness explained somewhere between 78% to 90% of academic achievement, leaving very little room for EI to predict further improvement. However, mixed EI did incrementally improve the prediction by 2.3%. When taken separately, the “understanding and management branches of ability EI explained an additional 3.9% and 3.6%, respectively.”
The researchers write that “self-rated EI, total ability EI, and the lower two branches of ability EI (emotion perception and facilitation) provide little to no explanatory power for academic performance over intelligence and personality.”
Nonetheless, although intelligence and conscientiousness were far more strongly linked to achievement than EI and related factors, the relationship between EI and school may have important practical implications.
“EI training programs are likely to increase academic performance as well as social and emotional outcomes, such that education decision-makers and policymakers are not faced with a decision of whether to invest in social/emotional wellbeing at the expense of student achievement—evidence suggests that these programs likely do both. This is a critical piece of information for schools deciding where to best allocate their resources.”
MacCann and colleagues’ findings suggest that EI may represent an important domain for school-based instruction and across various phases of the education process. Given relationships identified, integrating instruction to promote EI among students may increase schoolwide wellbeing and achievement alike.
MacCann, C., Jiang, Y., Brown, L. E. R., Double, K. S., Bucich, M., & Minbashian, A. (2019). Emotional intelligence predicts academic performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. doi: 10.1037/bul0000219 (Abstract)