EQ 101: A Very Brief History

Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”  –Aristotle

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in emotional intelligence (also known as EQ), prompting numerous scholars to conduct research and write books and articles on the subject. Through their work, these scholars have defined emotional intelligence and presented models outlining the skills and competencies associated with emotional intelligence.

Still, to really understand emotional intelligence, we must understand how it began and how it evolved over time. And while ancient philosophers such as Aristotle had already begun to discuss skills and competencies we now associate with emotional intelligence (i.e. “knowing yourself”), it was just three decades ago that scholars began to formalize the concept as we know it today.

In this post, I provide a brief history of emotional intelligence. I share contributions of well-known scholars, such as their definitions of emotional intelligence, the skills and competencies they attributed to it, and books and articles they published. The work of these scholars is important because it is the foundation for our current understandings of emotional intelligence.

Laying the Foundation 

Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer first wrote about emotional intelligence nearly three decades ago. Early on, Salovey and Mayer (1990) defined emotional intelligence as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action” (p. 188). Consistent with with this three-part definition, Salovey and Mayer developed a model consisting of three components: (1) appraisal and expression of emotions, (2) regulation of emotions, and (3) utilization (i.e. use) of emotions.

As their understanding of emotional intelligence grew, Salovey and Mayer began to see an important relationship between emotion and thinking. To account for thinking, they expanded their definition of emotional intelligence and their corresponding model. Their new four-part model of emotional intelligence included (1) perceiving, appraising, and expressing emotions, (2) managing emotions to support personal growth (3) using emotions to promote thinking, and (4) understanding emotions and the impact of emotions on relationships.

Moving into the Mainstream

While Salovey and Mayer founded emotional intelligence, Goleman brought it into the mainstream with the publication of a bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (1995). In this book, Goleman highlights several key ideas regarding emotional intelligence:

  • A high IQ alone cannot guarantee personal or professional success.
  • Emotional intelligence is also necessary for achieving success.
  • Emotions play a very important role in the decision-making process.
  • Skills and competencies associated with emotional intelligence can be learned.
  • Parents and teachers can use strategies to help children develop skills and competencies associated with emotional intelligence.

Organizing for Education

Not surprisingly, Goleman and other scholars joined forces to establish the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an organization that strives “to make evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) an integral part of education from preschool through high school” (http://www.casel.org/our-work/). In other words, CASEL wants to ensure that students in all grades have opportunities to participate in activities that are known to be effective in building their social skills and emotional intelligence. CASEL, which is still operational, conducts research and promotes the teaching of SEL through their work with school district leaders and policy makers.

Just after CASEL was established, 6Seconds, another organization focused on emotional intelligence was also established. The founding president, Anabel Jensen, had helped to develop a curriculum which aligned with the ideas in Goleman’s bestselling book. After founding 6Seconds, Dr. Jensen and her colleagues developed assessments aimed at “measuring” emotional intelligence, and designed curricula for teaching the skills and competencies associated with emotional intelligence. The assessments and curricula, both of which align with 6Seconds’ own model of emotional intelligence, are currently used by practitioners in education and various other fields.

Getting the Word Out

The decade following the founding of these organizations witnessed the publication of numerous books and manuals devoted to the teaching of emotional intelligence. Among the many books and manuals published were:

  • Elias, Zins & Weissberg (1997). Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators (Elias, Zins, & Weissberg, 1997)
  • CASEL (2003). Safe & Sound: An Educational Leader’s Guide to Evidence-Based Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Programs.
  • Elias, Zins, Wang, & Wahlberg (2004). Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning: What Does the Research Say?
  • Elias & Arnold (2006). The Educator’s Guide to Emotional Intelligence & Academic Achievement: Social Emotional Learning in the Classroom

These books and manuals were written by scholars who, like Salovey, Mayer, and Goldman, have greatly influenced our understandings of emotional intelligence.


It’s apparent that emotional intelligence was an immediate hit among many scholars and practitioners, particularly in the field of education. Educators who espouse emotional intelligence believe in teaching students how to identify their feelings, manage their feelings in appropriate and effective ways, and honor the feelings of others. They believe that these skills and competencies will contribute to, rather than detract from, students’ success and help to make classrooms and communities better for all who inhabit them.


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