Your recent research looks at emotionally-intelligent decision making. How do you define ‘emotional intelligence’?
Some of the most critical skills of emotional intelligence (‘EI’) include empathy, which is the ability to understand how other people feel; emotion understanding, which entails identifying the reasons for your own and other people’s emotions; and regulating your emotions, which involves coping with stress, modifying undesirable emotions and generating desired emotions. Getting rid of anger, for instance, and generating enthusiasm.
We can now measure emotional intelligence, and we know that some people have developed these skills to a greater degree than others. In my research I’m interested in how variations on different aspects of EI relate to how people behave in the workplace. In the case of this particular research, we looked at how EI affects decision making.
In these studies you focused on the ‘emotion understanding’ aspect of EI. Please explain why.
My colleague Jeremy Yip (a Rotman PhD graduate) and I felt that this was the most relevant aspect of EI for making good decisions. That’s because it predicts whether people will fall prey to the effects of incidental emotions that have nothing to do with the decision at hand.
What are ‘incidental emotions’?
When we make decisions, there are two types of emotions we might feel: incidental and integral. Incidental emotions are the emotions we carry with us to the decision that have nothing to do with the decision. For example, the way you feel because you had an extremely frustrating drive to work, or because you had an argument with your partner before leaving for work that morning. Even though incidental emotions come from other sources, they are brought to a decision-making scenario and are experienced as the decision is made.
For instance, studies show that people have a tendency to allow incidental emotions to influence things like investment decisions. Why? Because these emotions put us in a certain kind of mental mindset, and when a decision is in front of us, we sometimes have a hard time separating these emotions from the way we feel about the decision itself. The question we set out to answer was, ‘Does emotional intelligence—and in particular, emotion-understanding ability—prevent a decision maker from being affected by incidental emotions?’
As opposed to incidental emotions, integral emotions are emotions that are caused by the decision itself. They arrive, for example, when you think about the parameters of the decision or its implications. And these emotions can actually be pretty useful. If thinking through a decision causes you some anxiety, that is useful information: it might be a sign that you need to be very cautious, and that you should potentially be more risk-averse rather than risk-seeking with the decision.
You write that, “People develop the ability to understand emotions via multiple processes.” Please describe how this happens.
Childhood is a sensitive period for the acquisition of these skills, and as a result, there is robust evidence showing that parents play a major role in determining whether somebody is good at understanding where their emotions—and other people’s emotions—come from. During childhood, whether or not parents use emotional language with their kids—terms like happy, angry and sad—and talk about the sources of these emotions, makes a big difference. Parents can say things like, ‘You are feeling anxious right now because you have that Math test tomorrow or that performance later today, and you’re not sure how you’re going to do.’ Later in life, these kids become better at identifying the cause of their emotions.
Another source can be knowledge of Psychology. The extent to which people either take Psychology classes or read about it in books can make them more or less likely develop a toolkit for identifying emotions and their causes. These people are likely to learn, for example, that the reason they feel anxious about something is that they cannot predict or control what’s going to happen to them. They learn that people feel anxious when there’s something coming up where the outcome matters for them, and they cannot control or predict what’s going to happen.
What did you discover about the effects of 'incidental anxiety' on risk taking?
We were interested in whether or not emotional intelligence reduces the effects of incidental emotions on the decision you’re about to make. We wanted to do a strong test of this, so we picked one of the most consistent effects of incidental emotions on decisions. Several studies have shown that if you feel anxiety from your personal life, this affects how much risk you’re willing to take in your work life and your business decisions. Why? Because anxiety is a signal that there is potential danger lurking, and that therefore, you should be cautious.
Why does your anxiety from your home life affect your work decisions? As I indicated earlier, these emotions stay with us and influence our mental mindsets; they carry over, and we’re not always very good at being aware of where they come from. So we decided to take this very robust effect and see if emotional intelligence removes it.
How did you measure emotion-understanding ability?
One of the myths about emotional intelligence is that you can measure it by asking people whether they’re good at it. It turns out people are very biased in making such assessments, so we applied a test that is similar to an IQ test. Problems were presented with scenarios where people were experiencing certain emotions and the study participants had to decide, in multiple-choice format, which event was most likely to have caused that emotional response.
To select the scenarios, the authors of the test looked at the vast research that links different events to different emotional responses. For example, anger tends to be a reaction to being treated unfairly; anxiety tends to be a reaction to unpredictability and uncontrollability; sadness tends to be a response to loss; embarrassment tends to be a response to a deviation from social norms; and happiness tends to be a response to progress towards a goal and positive things happening to us. The authors of the test consulted this research in determining the ‘right answers’ to the scenarios. Basically by using this test, we were really testing whether people knew the causes of various emotions.
Tell us about the practical implications of your findings.
Particularly when facing very important decisions, people can intervene to not allow incidental, unrelated emotions to influence them. When faced with an important decision, the first step is to identify how you are feeling. Second, determine why you are feeling that way. If you identify that you’re feeling angry or anxious, why is that? Is it because you are worried about the content of the decision itself, or is it because your children are going to be performing in a play later that day and you’re afraid they’ll forget his lines? If you determine that what you are feeling is integral emotion—an emotion that is based on the decision itself—then you can move on to the third step, which is, thinking about what that emotion means with respect to the decision.
If you realize you anxiety is not caused by the decision—that it’s incidental—then you can try strategies to reduce the anxiety. Just being aware that you’re anxious and that it has nothing to do with the decision at hand will help you mentally separate the anxiety from the decision. You can also apply some regulation strategies. For example, find a way to distract yourself from your home life when you’re making an important work decision, so that it’s not in your mind. Or, try to re-frame what’s causing the anxiety in a more positive way: maybe the stress you feel about your children’s performance will actually facilitate their performance, rather than make them less likely to succeed.
The fact is, if you let incidental anxiety make you very risk-averse on a regular basis, you are going to miss out on all sorts of opportunities in life. So it is important to block the influence of these unrelated emotions on our decisions. Only relevant sources of emotion should influence your decisions.
What are you working on next?
I’m really interested in all the different ways that emotional intelligence can help us succeed in life—the kind of opportunities that it can facilitate for us and the challenges that it can help us overcome. How can emotional intelligence help us achieve our different goals? How can it help us facilitate opportunities that are awarded to us in the workplace? Also, how can it help us overcome challenges, like highly stressful conditions?
If it’s true that emotional understanding ability is helpful for decision making because it tells us whether our current emotion is relevant to the decision or not, the next step is, what kind of regulation skills are the most useful to get rid of unrelated anxiety? Once we identify an incidental emotion, what exactly should we do next in order to eliminate its effects? That’s what I’m working on next.
Stéphane Côté is a professor of Organizational Behaviour and HR Management at the Rotman School of Management and the PhD Coordinator for the OB/HR area. Rotman faculty research is ranked in the top 10 worldwide by The Financial Times.
This interview originally appeared in 'Thinking about Thinking III' (Winter 2014)
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