Emotional Intelligence Gets Better With Age

A recent study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley (in conjunction with Arizona State University,) concludes that emotional intelligence peaks as we enter our 60s.

The team of researchers, led by psychologist Dr. Robert Levenson, has been tracking how our emotional strategies and responses change as we age. Their findings “support the theory that emotional intelligence and cognitive skills can actually sharpen as we enter our 60s, giving older people an advantage in the workplace and in personal relationships.”

In the first part of the study, researchers observed 144 healthy adults in their 20s, 40s, and 60s as they reacted to neutral, sad, and disgusting film clips. The participants had to watch these clips utilizing techniques known as “detatched appraisal,” “positive reappraisal,” and “behavior suppression.” When asked to watch the clips with detached appraisal, the participants were told to adopt an objective, unemotional attitude. For positive reappraisal, they were told to focus on the positive aspects of what they were seeing. Finally, for behavioral suppression, they were instructed to not show any emotion. Researchers discovered that the older participants were the best at looking for the positive side of negative scenes (positive reappraisal,) a coping mechanism that draws heavily on life experiences and lessons learned. The study’s younger and middle aged participants were best at using detached appraisal  in order to tune out the unpleasant emotions that came along with disturbing and sad movie clips.

According to Dr. Levenson, “it appears that the meaning of late life centers on social relationships and caring for and being cared for by others…evolution seems to have tuned our nervous systems in ways that are optimal for these kinds of interpersonal and compassionate activities as we age.” With the detached appraisal technique, the prefrontal brain’s “executive function” is exercised. This mechanism is responsible for memory, planning, and impulse control, which all diminish with age. Furthermore, the need to be able to detach from emotional situations seems to be more important in young adulthood and middle age, when establishing and continuing in a career is viewed to be essential to success. In the workforce, most professions require employees to leave their emotional side at home in order to be productive and do their job well.

Do you think you are better at detaching from emotional situations, or looking at the positive side of them? Do you think your emotional intelligence is similar to others in your generation?

In the second part of the study, conducted by UC Berkeley psychologist Benjamin Seider, 222 healthy adults in their 20s, 40s, and 60s were wired with physiological sensors as they watched the same film clips from the first half of the experiment. Researchers discovered that older participants showed more sadness in reaction to emotionally charged scenes when compared to their younger counterparts. This is likely because of the fact that “in late life, individuals often adopt different perspectives and goals that focus more on close interpersonal relationships…by doing so, they become increasingly sensitized to sadness because the shared experience of sadness leads to greater intimacy in interpersonal relationships,” according to Seider.

Why do you think younger people have lower sensitivity to sadness?

You may read more about the study here.

4 responses to “Emotional Intelligence Gets Better With Age”

  1. Keith D. says:

    I think I’m pretty good at both detachment from emotional situations and in looking at the positive side of them. But at 38, it’s definitely still easier to detach than to see the bright side– seeing the bright side just requires a bit more consciously directed effort. I would imagine that as I get older, I’ll get sick of the detachment and it’ll begin to just require less energy to see the bright side because that will produce better results in the longer term than detachment, and my experience will have born that out.

    I think my emotional intelligence is probably notably higher than others in my generation, primarily because I’m so fascinated by human behavior, which has led me to spending a lot of time studying research papers and reading books about human psychology and behavior.

    I think younger people probably tend to have a lower sensitivity to sadness because they’re less experienced and still trying to “find themselves” and discover who they are vs. who they’ve been told they are, which makes them naturally more self-absorbed and less sensitive to sad situations involving others. As life experience accumulates and people become more settled in their own skin, it allows them the freedom of experience to be more open to the plights of others. I think the research showing that as people reach later adulthood (50’s-60’s in particular) that they tend more strongly toward altruistic goals rather than self-serving goals in career choices (more desire to work for non-profit organizations or volunteer at shelters or churches etc.) may support that theory.

  2. I am a Certified Bar On EQ 2.0 Emotional Intelligence Assessment Provider. I recently provided this assessment to a 71 year old Surgeon and a 70 year old Executive. Both scored in the high range on most of the 15 scales. The study referenced above makes sense to me.

  3. Mike says:

    What’s the citation for this study? I’d like to see the full paper.

  4. Mike – That is a great question. You can purchase the entire study at this site: http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2009-23924-012

    There is also the link at the bottom of article to UC Berkeley’s site with additional information:
    http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2010/12/16/agingemotion/

    UCB will sometimes publish a study for free in a PDF version. You could try
    http://ist-socrates.berkeley.edu/~ucbpl/publications.html

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