General intelligence – is it also emotional?

We are used to think about cognition and emotion as separate domains of human functioning. Efficiency in cognitive processes we call ‘intelligence’, and competence in emotional functioning we call … well, some have daringly called it ’emotional intelligence’. Perhaps the proponents of this new construct by this designation have borrowed some unfair credibility to their invention, while they simultaneously (and contradictorily) were also contesting the high status of the concept of general intelligence. This is all to remind us, of course, that it takes more than good intellectual abilities to do well in life as a whole. And nobody was actually ever contesting that.

In the popular perception cognition and emotion are often seen as opposites – the iconic images of the distracted professor or the slightly autistic nerd as emotionally inept and socially helpless characters, for example.

In psychology it has been commonly held, that while intellectual abilities all correlate positively with each other, thereby justifying the construct of general intelligence, they do not correlate well or consistently with traits or dimensions of personality. Therefore personality, and whatever it relates to, belonged to a separate realm.

Now this may be changing. In a paper from last year the authors concluded that a measure of emotional intelligence (EI) fits well into standard statistical models of the structure of intelligence. EI comprises a second stratum broad ability factor together with other well known second stratum broad ability factors in a hierarchical model with the usual general ability factor, Spearmann’s g,  at the apex (the Cattell-Horn-Carroll, CHC, theory).

Emotional Intelligence Model Light Green

Gf Gc Gq Gv Glr EI
g 1.00 .90 .78 .83 .72 .80

Figure and data excerpt from the autors’ model 7. Table (rewritten) shows standardized loadings of second stratum factors on g.

g = general intelligence; EI = emotional intelligence; Gf = fluid intelligence; Gc = crystallized intelligence; Gq = quantitative reasoning; Gv = visual processing; Glr = broad retrieval ability.

Note that the standardized loading of EI on g (.80) is in the same order of magnitude as those of the usual broad intellectual ability factors.

The authors conclude:

“The current study is the most comprehensive examination to date of the placement of EI within an existing framework of intelligence and shows fairly conclusively that tasks involving the processing of emotional information can constitute a separate and distinct group factor of intelligence. CHC theory can be adapted to include EI within its boundaries. We argue that the current inclusion is an important step forward in charting the sphere of human cognitive abilities.”

What probably increases the validity of the authors’ EI-measure above other self-report measures is that they used items that can be scored as either right or wrong.

The authors have managed to unify, into a common model, two areas, largely seen as distinct until now. It will be interesting to see further work in this field.

The great take home message seems to be, if you have a high general intelligence, you are likely to have a high emotional ditto as well. The generality of g has thereby been greatly extended. g is good. Now it’s probably even better!


MacCann, Carolyn, et al. “Emotional Intelligence Is a Second-Stratum Factor of Intelligence: Evidence From Hierarchical and Bifactor Models.” Emotion 14.2 (2014): 358-74.

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Video: Dr Carolyn MacCann – Emotional Intelligence: what is it?