Exploring the “hypersensitivity” of emotionally intelligent individuals: underpinnings and consequences

The basic idea of this research program is to investigate what has been called the emotional “hypersensitivity” of emotionally intelligent individuals, meaning that individuals with high emotional intelligence (EI) are characterized by greater reactivity to emotional information and emotions. The results will help to understand whether emotional intelligence is a curse or a blessing and why.

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Emotional Intelligence (EI) is a novel construct that was introduced in the psychological literature thirty years ago and that is seeing an exponential development in research and applications. EI encompasses abilities and self-perceptions related to the recognition, expression, understanding, and management of emotions (Petrides & Furnham, 2001; Salovey & Mayer, 1990). Great progress has been made in the last few years to clarify some of the critical issues the construct was confronted with, such as its incremental validity, its relationship with intelligence and personality, and how to measure it as an ability or as a personality trait (MacCann, Joseph, Newman & Roberts, 2014; Mayer, Caruso, & Salovey, 2016).

Perhaps because of the urgency of addressing such crucial issues related to the validity and measurement of the EI construct, scholars have devoted little attention to understanding the psychological processes underlying individual differences in EI (Fiori, 2009). Thus, whereas we know that EI is associated with (mostly) positive outcomes in domains such as health, academic achievement, and social interactions, we do not know what type of emotional and cognitive processes account for such outcomes and how they operate in high as compared to low EI individuals. Understanding the processes through which EI exerts its effects is needed if we are to advance the conceptualization of EI, and to reconcile conflicting results regarding the effect of EI on various outcomes. Indeed, despite the burgeoning literature showing the positive effects of EI, the possibility that EI might have negative side effects has been lightly touched upon in the theoretical literature and empirical evidence suggesting some disadvantages of EI is beginning to emerge.

The aim of the current research program is to address an important shortcoming of the EI literature—namely the lack of a clear understanding as to how EI functions--by introducing a reconceptualization of EI as a magnifier through which individuals attribute value and meaning to what is happening around them, modulating emotional experience and its effects on (social) perception. Preliminary results supporting this conceptualization of EI have been provided (Fiori & Ortony, 2016), with the basic idea being that individuals high in EI may be characterized by stronger sensitivity to emotion and emotion information, a phenomenon that has been referred to as emotional “hypersensitivity”. Using an experimental approach, the proposed research program aims to fully investigate the hypersensitivity of high EI individuals by: 1) inquiring into the cognitive and affective underpinnings that may lead to hypersensitivity in high EI individuals; and 2) identifying the circumstances under which the hypersensitivity of high EI individuals may impair or enhance performance/behavior. These two questions will be addressed by investigating individuals from both the general population and gifted individuals. The comparison of the two types of individuals will allow better understanding how emotional hypersensitivity is related to intelligence, how it works and how it affects thought and behavior.

The results of this research program will enable EI scholars to gain a deeper understanding into how EI functions and thus to develop more accurate models about how EI impacts performance and behavior. Training programs for children, adults, and gifted individuals will strongly benefit from including modules that teach people how to manage their emotional hypersensitivity in a way that fully takes advantage of the power of emotions.

Importantly, results of the current research will shed light on how and when EI is associated with positive and negative outcomes. Ultimately this research will enable answering the cogent question: is EI a curse or a blessing, and why?


Quantitative research based on data collected through questionnaires et surveys and experimental tasks.