A meta-analysis suggests that certain aspects of emotional intelligence have declined among college students in the past two decades. The study, published in the Journal of Personality, analyzed data from 70 studies conducted among college students in the Western world between 2003 and 2018.
Western culture has undergone remarkable change in the past 20 years. For one, a rise in economic liberalism and free-market capitalism has encouraged an environment of competitive individualism. Secondly, social media emerged and has grown rapidly, along with smartphone technology. Studies suggest these changes may have led to generational differences in personality, revealing generational rises in narcissism, self-esteem, self-focus, and materialism.
Study authors Mahreen Khan and her team wanted to investigate whether this cultural transformation may have affected trait emotional intelligence (EI). Trait EI refers to perceptions of our own well-being, and perceptions of how good we are at regulating our emotions, understanding others’ emotions, and influencing others’ emotions.
The researchers conducted a cross-temporal meta-analysis, examining different birth cohorts of college students and testing for generational differences in trait EI. In total, Khan and her colleagues collected data from 70 studies conducted in the U.S., Canada, the UK, or Australia between 2003 and 2018. Altogether, the meta-analysis included data from 16,917 college students, all of whom had completed an assessment of trait EI, using the Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire (TEIQue).
First, when controlling for between-country differences and gender composition of the samples, overall trait EI did not fluctuate with time. However, three of the four subdomains of EI decreased significantly over time. These were emotionality (perceptions of one’s understanding of others’ emotions), self-control (self-efficacy in regulating one’s own emotions), and well-being (positive evaluations of the self).
When the researchers crossed this data with measures of individualism and internet usage for each country, they found that technology usage was associated with declines in well-being and self-control, while individualism was associated with increases in well-being and self-control. The authors note that due to missing data, they were only able to include a small number of studies in this particular analysis, so these findings should be interpreted with caution.
Notably, when analyzing the data by country, the Canadian samples showed a decrease in overall trait EI with time, as well as a decrease in the domains of emotionality, self-control, and sociability (self-efficacy in influencing others’ emotions).
Khan and her team emphasize that the decreases they observed in aspects of emotional intelligence call to mind the rising mental health problems associated with the proliferation of social media. However, they note that there may be other reasons why EI has decreased in the past two decades — such as heightened academic pressure, increased obesity, and decreased family stability.
Overall, the meta-analysis suggests that sociocultural changes can influence aspects of emotional intelligence. If future studies are able to pinpoint the factors behind these changes, mental health professionals will have a better idea of the strategies and interventions that will be most helpful for those affected.
The study, “College students in the western world are becoming less emotionally intelligent: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of trait emotional intelligence”, was authored by Mahreen Khan, Amirali Minbashian, and Carolyn MacCann.