The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Higher Education


The following article discusses the importance of incorporating a focus on emotional intelligence, which can be increased, into higher education. It delineates potential personal, social, and societal consequences of so doing and as well as possible effects it could have on the university milieu. Finally, it discusses avenues via which such a focus could be incorporated.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”


O ne of the most important things I have learned in my years as an academician is the value of emotional intelligence, which incorporates intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence or abilities (Gardner, 1983, 1993). Intrapersonal intelligence includes attributes leading to self-understanding and mastery (e.g., awareness of feelings, psychological insight, ability to manage emotions, and behave in ways that meet ones needs and goals) while interpersonal intelligence involves social competence (e.g., the capacity for empathy, altruism, and emotional intimacy; Gardner, 1983, 1994; Goleman, 1995).
There are many potential personal, social, and societal benefits of incorporating a focus on emotional intelligence, which has been shown to be moldable (Cohen, 1999;
Goleman, 1995; Topping, Holmes, & Bremmer, 2000), into higher education. As it has been found that the inclusion of classes on emotional intelligence in primary and
secondary school curriculum is efficacious in raising emotional intelligence and reducing emotional and behavioral problems which can interfere with the learning process (Caplan et al., 1992; Cohen, 1999), one would expect similar results at the college level. Likewise, it has been found that the incorporation of such classes into the curriculum results in higher scores on standardized achievement tests (Hawkins, Von Cleave, & Catalano, 1991), providing evidence for the view that processes previously thought to be purely cognitive in fact work synergistically with emotional processes. Knowledge about ourselves and others, as well as the ability to use this knowledge to solve problems, is a keystone to academic learning and success (Cohen, 1999; Goleman, 1995).
Another personal benefit is that students high in self-knowledge are more likely to make wise career choices (Gelso & Fretz, 2001), and, of course, social competence
will enhance the probability of career success in any career that involves relating to other people. Career satisfaction, in turn, has been found to have a significant inverse association with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety and a significant positive relationship with physical health, even longevity (Lofquist & Dawis, 1984; Palmore, 1969). It has also been found to have a significantly positive impact on one’s family life (Burke, Oberklaid, & Burgess, 2003; Stevens, Kiger, & Riley, 2002).

High emotional intelligence has a variety of other social benefits as well. Adequate self-knowledge and accurate perceptions of others increases the probability that one
will make a wise choice in a marital partner as one is more likely to know what one wants, to correctly identify one’s needs in the context of the relationship, as well as see clearly the true nature of, and motivational forces in, the partner. Although there is a paucity of literature on the relationship between emotional intelligence and marital satisfaction, the available literature suggests a strong positive correlation (Schutte et al., 2001). Logically, it would be expected that those high in emotional intelligence would indeed have a greater capacity to maintain nurturing and emotionally intimate marriages than those low in emotional intelligence, given the former’s adeptness at empathy, altruism, constructive honesty, and other such traits which are part of high emotional intelligence.
Obviously, possession of such traits would enhance the probability of one being a good parent as such a person would tend to be skilled at communicating love, making
the child feel valued, setting healthy boundaries, and establishing a real (i.e., nonsuperficial) relationship. Not surprisingly, high emotional intelligence in parents has been found to have a positive impact on the social and emotional development of their children (Gottman, Katz, & Hooven, 1997; Hooven, Gottman, & Katz, 1995).
Given that high emotional intelligence involves high social competence, individuals high in emotional intelligence are prone to have better social support networks in
general, which ample evidence has shown to have a strong inverse association with mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and hostility and a strong positive association with physical health as well as longevity (Cohen & Syme, 1985; House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988; VanderVoort, 1999). Rogers’ (1957) “big three” traits empathy, unconditional positive regard, and genuineness or constructive honesty–are not only critical for positive therapeutic change in the client, as an extensive literature base indicates (Lambert & Bergin, 1994), they are, in my view, the essential traits that create emotionally supportive relationships in general. Without honesty, there is no intimacy, and without altruism, there is no love.
From a macro perspective, one would expect that a society comprised of individuals high in emotional intelligence would tend to have low rates of aggressiveness and
violent crime as well as a variety of other mental health problems. In addition, given that chronic negative affect has a profound effect on morbidity and mortality, comparable to that of traditional risk factors such as smoking (Booth-Kewley & Friedman, 1987; Cohen & Herbert, 1996), the overall physical health of such a society would most likely be superior to a society comprised of individuals low in emotional intelligence.
An explicit valuing of emotional intelligence in academia could have a significant impact on the nature of the university milieu. If both faculty and administrators had not only a high IQ but high EQ (emotional intelligence quotient), relations between these two groups, which are frequently somewhat strained, would most likely be more amicable. This would be a function of good conflict management skills and adaptive ways of coping with differential levels of power as well as other interpersonal issues. Similarly, relationships between faculty might be healthier, leading to a more ideal work environment.
Given the strong connection between negative emotion and maladaptive beliefs (Beck, 1976; Ellis & Dryden, 1987), faculty high in emotional intelligence may be less
prone to adopt irrational beliefs and, hence, less likely to communicate such beliefs to their students. For example, a colleague of mine was a strong proponent of the view that talking about feelings is detrimental to one’s marriage and gave me literature which allegedly supported this view. In fact, that literature supported the opposing view. Chronic negative affect can indeed distort our view of the world, and in this case, even the interpretation of what he read.
In the classroom, a professor high in emotional intelligence might be more likely to adopt a humanitarian (as opposed to a more controlling or dictatorial) teaching style, which nurtures the development of their self-esteem and encourages students to take a more active approach to learning (e.g., ask more questions, develop a personal stance on controversial issues rather than automatically adopt the professor’s position, apply relevant concepts to everyday life). Active learning has been shown to facilitate the learning process and enhance student achievement (Public Education Network, 2004).
Further, courses on emotional intelligence are well suited to a variety of teaching strategies, not only didactic ones but interactive ones, the latter of which encourages
active learning as well (Graczyk et al., 2000). If academia were indeed to incorporate an explicit focus on emotional intelligence, via what avenues could such a focus be implemented? One avenue is to require one or more classes on emotional intelligence, most likely as a lower division requirement, just as some universities require courses on critical thinking. Another avenue is to encourage the inclusion of a focus on emotional intelligence into existing courses where such a focus might be directly relevant (e.g., teaching conflict management skills in a psychology or sociology class). A third avenue is to include traits of highemotional intelligence as part of the required job qualifications for faculty. In addition to letters of reference, alternative methods of assessing proficiency in this area would undoubtedly become commonplace (e.g., university awards, standardized assessments), were this to become a common minimal requirement for faculty.
In summary, the inclusion of a focus on emotional intelligence as part of the standard college curriculum could lead to a variety of positive personal, social, and
societal outcomes. Increasing emotional intelligence may not only facilitate the learning process, improve career choice and likelihood of success, but could also enhance the probability of better personal and social adaptation in general. The educational experience would tend to be more balanced or holistic as it would focus on  educating the whole person. There could also be beneficial effects on the university milieu,improving the environment in which the educational experience occurs


Address for correspondence: Debra J. VanderVoort, University of Hawaii at Hilo, Social Science Division, 200 W. Kawili, Hilo, HI 96720. E-mail:


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University o f Hawaii at Hilo


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