It’s a crazy morning at home, and your spouse is furious at you. Harried, you slam the car door shut and race off to work where an important task awaits.
Your ability to tune out the situation at home and focus on the job at hand is facilitated by your emotional understanding. It’s a form of emotional intelligence, according to Jeremy Yip, a lecturer and research scholar at Wharton. Compartmentalizing enables a person to identify what is stressing them out and to allow other, unrelated factors in their life to stand on their own merits, Yip says.
But are people with high levels of emotional intelligence able to go one step further and take risks unrelated to what is stressing them out? Yes, notes Yip, whose research study, “The Emotionally Intelligent Decision-Maker: Emotion Understanding Ability Reduces the Effect of Incidental Anxiety on Risk-taking,” was published in the journal Psychological Science. His co-author is Stéphane Côté, professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at the University of Toronto.
The study shows that people with lower levels of emotional understanding allow unrelated stressors to make them more risk averse, while those with higher levels are more likely to take a chance. “By identifying the source of their emotions, those with high emotional intelligence realize whether their emotions are irrelevant to the decisions they need to make,” Yip notes. “As a result, they don’t experience that spillover effect. They might feel anxious, but they don’t let it affect their decision.”
In the study’s first experiment, the researchers gave 108 University of Toronto students the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, which measures levels of emotional intelligence.
The participants were then split into two groups. One was given an anxiety-provoking task: to prepare a speech in one minute. To ratchet up the pressure, members of that group were told they would be filmed, and that the footage would later be shown to peers studying academic and social standing at the university. (After the testing was concluded, participants were informed that there would be no speech after all.)
“By … discovering that these emotions are in fact unrelated to the decisions we are making, we may de-bias our decisions.” –Stéphane Côté
The other group was given a relatively relaxing assignment: They were asked to prepare a grocery list. For compensation, participants in both groups were given a separate choice: receive $1, or take a one in 10 chance to receive $10.
For those given the stressful speechwriting assignment, people who scored low on the emotional intelligence test made the riskier choice — going for the $10 — only 16.7% of the time. Those with higher levels of emotional intelligence, meanwhile, picked the riskier option 48.3% of the time.
For the relaxed individuals given the grocery list assignment, who functioned as a control group, the results were much closer together, no matter how much emotional intelligence each participant possessed.
“As expected, there was a negative effect of incidental anxiety on risk taking among individuals with lower emotion-understanding ability, but there was no effect among individuals with higher emotion-understanding ability,” the authors write.
To Worry or Not to Worry?
The second experiment was designed to see if people with lower levels of emotional understanding could be prompted into making the same risky choices as their counterparts with more emotional understanding.
This experiment started out much like the first: Everyone was given the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso test to measure their emotional intelligence. In a separate experimental session, the 132 participants were either asked to mentally prepare a speech or a grocery list.
People can apply the research to their own encounters with risk by asking three questions: “How do I feel right now? What is causing me to feel that way? And are my feelings relevant to the decision I need to make?” –Jeremy Yip
But this time, each group was subdivided into two parts. One was given no further instruction; the other was tipped off that they might feel worried because making a speech is a naturally anxiety-producing task, or that they may feel calm because making a grocery list is not stressful. This step, Yip says, was designed to provide a bit of emotional intelligence for those to whom it doesn’t come naturally.
All participants were then given the choice of giving their e-mail address to get more information about attending a clinic to receive a flu shot. They were told that choosing not to have the shot was the riskier choice, because they were more likely to get sick.
Of those who were not prompted, the results were a lot like the first experiment. For those given the speech to compose, 7.3% of those with lower emotional intelligence made the risky choice, while 65.9% of those with higher emotional intelligence made the risky choice. Again, those given the grocery list made similar choices no matter what their emotional intelligence.
Yip points out that opting to not receive flu shot clinic information wasn’t necessarily the wiser choice, only that it was riskier — and that those participants who displayed higher levels of emotional intelligence were more likely to put their stress about the speech aside and make that riskier choice. “We definitely don’t want to make a statement that emotionally intelligent people avoid flu shots,” Yip notes.
The researchers discovered that for those who were prompted with information that writing a speech was a naturally stressful experience, the results were a lot closer together. Those with lower emotional intelligence made the riskier choice 46% of the time, and those with higher emotional intelligence made that risky choice 49.8% of the time.
“By analyzing the source of the emotions and discovering that these emotions are, in fact, unrelated to the decisions we are making, we may de-bias our decisions,” Côté points out, adding that this principle can be applied to many different situations, whether it’s a decision about which career to pursue, how to invest money or which job candidate to hire.
Children learn to become emotionally intelligent when their parents discuss emotions and ask questions like, “Why do you feel scared?”
According to Côté, the way we react to stressful experiences has a lot to do with parental influences. Children learn to become emotionally intelligent when their parents discuss emotions and ask questions like, “Why do you feel scared?” he says. Those parents provide guidance on how to answer those queries as well. Côté adds that adults can be trained in emotional intelligence using similar principles, although there is not yet a lot of evidence to support that.
Yip says that people can apply the research to their own encounters with risk by asking three questions: “How do I feel right now? What is causing me to feel that way? And are my feelings relevant to the decision I need to make?” So when faced with investment decisions, like choosing between safe government bonds and risky stocks, it’s an emotionally intelligent choice to leave an unexpected repair bill, or the possibility of missing a flight, out of the analysis. “Emotions carry information,” Yip says, although the data from emotions are not always useful to the decision at hand.