Emotional Intelligence: Smartness of Feelings?

By Ali Boone and Hannah Laskey

Within the past couple of decades psychology research has skyrocketed in emotional development during childhood. In our world today emotions can be referred to as a sensitive subject, most often associated with “feelings.” However, emotions are more complex than an individual’s feelings. Developmentalists in the textbook How Children Develop (Siegler, DeLoache, and Eisenberg, 2011) see emotion as having several components: (1) physiological factors, including heart and breath rate, hormonal levels, and the like; (2) subjective feelings; (3) the cognitions that may elicit or accompany subjective feelings; and (4) the desire to take action, including the desire to escape, approach, or change people or things in the environment.

When people are asked “what makes a person ‘smart?’” most people respond by listing intellectual abilities, business success, real world experiences, standardized testing scores, etc., but very few people actually realize that emotions play a key role in a persons intelligence.

Emotional intelligence: a set of abilities that contribute to competence in the social and emotional domains

(Siegler, DeLoache, and Eisenberg, 2011).


Emotional intelligence is one of many predictors of how well people do in life, especially their social lives. A research study was done on 450 boys from impoverished neighborhoods in the United States. When those boys reached middle age, the researchers followed up to find that how the boys considered their success and overall happiness had little to do with their IQs. Rather, each boy’s success corresponded with their ability to manage their frustration, control their emotions, and get along with others (Felsman & Vaillant, 1987). The bottom line is that emotions are a huge part of not only who we are and how we feel, but they also interpret success in life and relationships.

Parents are often completely naïve to the idea supporting their child’s emotional development, yet they often know that their actions must have some sort of influence on their child. There are positive, negative, and self-conscious emotions that develop throughout childhood.

Positive emotions are the most obvious to identify; one of the easiest signals of happiness is smiling. During the first few months, infants exhibit “fleeting smiles,” primarily while sleeping. As the infant gets older they start to smile sometimes when their cheeks are stroked or rubbed. Researchers haven’t figured out if these smiles are reflexive or legitimate social interactions. Between the third and eighth week of infancy, babies begin to smile in reaction to touch, high-pitched voices, or other stimuli that engages their attention. After several months old, babies begin to social smile. Social smiles are, “smiles that are directed at people” (Siegler, DeLoache, and Eisenberg, 2011). Research has shown that babies are much more likely to smile at other humans than they are at interesting objects. In this particular study, researchers discovered that three-month-old infants tended to smile and vocalize much more towards people, even strangers, rather than towards any other inanimate object (Ellsworth, Muir, & Hains, 1993). Children’s positive emotions increase over the first year of their life because they are able to understand and respond to more interesting and positive events and stimuli. “Their cognitive development allows them to take pleasure from unexpected or discrepant events such as Mom’s making a funny noise or wearing a goofy hat” (Kagan, Kearsley, & Zelazo, 1978).

Infants demonstrate negative emotions through crying as a result of distress. Hunger and pain can easily evoke these negative emotions. Multiple studies suggest that “negative emotion in young infants continues to be expressed as undifferentiated distress and that anger and distress/pain are especially likely to be undifferentiated in most contexts” (Oster, Hegley, Nagel, & Camras, 1992). In a few situations, researchers have been able to differentiate between the causes negative emotions in infants. By a mere two months of age, it is easy to distinguish anger and sadness. By eight months of age, infants experience separation anxiety; “feelings of distress that children experience when they are separated, or expect to be separated, from individuals to whom they are emotionally attached to” (Siegler, DeLoache, and Eisenberg, 2011). Over Thanksgiving break, I (Hannah) noticed my nine-month-old cousin-in-law, Oliver, crying, and it took three tries to figure out why he was upset. We gave him his bottle: nope. We tried holding him: not that either. It ended up being separation anxiety from his mother, but as aforementioned, these distress signals are hard to differentiate at that age! When experiencing separation anxiety, children usually cry, whine, throw temper-tantrums, or show other signs of distress (Rheingold & Eckerman, 1970). As we examined in a different chapter, the levels of attachment (secure, avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized) reflect the level of separation anxiety, giving a further indication of emotional intelligence (Bowlby & Ainsworth, 1991).

Self-conscious emotions, such as embarrassment, pride, guilt, and shame, surface around the second year of life. “These emotions often are called self-conscious emotions because they relate to our sense of self and our consciousness of others’ reactions to us” (Stipek, Gralinski, & Kopp, 1990). Embarrassment can be shown through lowering of the eyes, hanging the head, blushing, or hiding their face with their hands. Pride, although it indicates a positive reflection of self, is just as much a self-conscious emotion as embarrassment; according to Lewis, “the first signs of pride are evident in children’s smiling glances at each other when they have successfully met a challenge or achieved something new” (Lewis, 1995). When I (Ali) was younger, I would confuse the emotions “guilt” and “shame”; they seemed the same to me! But in fact, “guilt is associated with empathy for others and involves feelings of remorse and regret about one’s behavior, as well as the desire to undo the consequences of that behavior” (Hoffman, 2000). Shame, then, can rise from guilt, but is an entirely different emotion; shame is a “painful feeling about how we appear to others … and doesn’t necessarily depend on [doing] something wrong” (Burgo, 2013). When I was younger, I would feel shame when I got in trouble for taking my mom’s credit cards to play shopkeeper, because I assumed that my mother’s perception of me was now tainted. After my mom expressed to me that it wasn’t right to take her credit cards without asking, I felt guilt, convicted by the fact that I knew I did something wrong. Similarly, I (now Hannah) used to conflate “envy” and “jealousy.” These emotions could be considered negative emotions or self-conscious emotions, depending on how one views the role of the one being envied/the one that the person is jealous of. Ultimately, envy is when you want something that someone else has, whereas jealousy is the fear of being replaced in the affection of a loved/desired one.

Works Cited

Ellsworth, Muir, & Hains. (1993). Social competence and person-object differentiation: An anlysis of the still-face effect. Developmental Psychology, 29, 63-73.

Felsman, J.K., & Vaillant, G. E. (1987). Resilient children as adults: a 40-year study. In E. J. Anderson & B. J. Cohler (Eds.), The Invulnerable Child (pp. 221-228). New York: Guilford.

Hoffmann. (2000). Empathy and moral development: Implications for caring and justice. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Kagan, Kearsley, & Zelazo. (1978). Infancy: Its place in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lewis. (1995). Embarrassment: The emotion of self-exposure and evaluation. In J.P. Tangney & K.W. Fischer (Eds.), Self-conscious emotions (pp. 198-218). New York: Guilford.

Oster, Hegley, & Nagel. (1992). Adult judgments and fine-grained analysis of infant facial expressions: Testing the validity of a priori coding formulas. Developmental Psychology, 28, 1115-1131.

Rheingold & Eckerman. (1970). The infant separates himself from his mother. Science, 168, 78-90.

Siegler, Robert S., Judy S. DeLoache, and Nancy Eisenberg. How Children Develop. 3rd ed. New York: Worth, 2006. Print.

Stipek, Gralinski, & Kopp. (1990). Self-concept development in the toddler years. Developmental Psychology, 26, 972-977.

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