Study: Wisdom not automatic benefit of age

By Kathy Gurchiek, 2/20/07

In the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, the character played by the actress Kathy Bates is stunned when two young women in a red VW zip into an empty parking space at the grocery, stealing a spot that she had patiently waited to claim.

“Hey, I was waiting for that spot!” the Bates character shouts.

“Face it, lady, we’re younger and faster!” one of the women tauntingly replies.

The Bates character snaps and in a fury repeatedly rams her car into the rear of the VW, then tells the gobsmacked screaming girls with a smile, “Face it, girls, I’m older and I have more insurance.”

Better insured, maybe, but not necessarily wiser, according to a recent study that found that emotional intelligence (EQ) does not develop automatically with age.

Emotional intelligence is “the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships,” according to an SHRM research paper quoting from psychologist Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence (Bantam, 1998).

The relationship between emotional intelligence and age varies slightly, according to a study of 405 Americans in April 2006 using the emotional intelligence assessment tool of Six Seconds, a nonprofit international organization that promotes EQ.

Significantly, the study found that most people will improve their emotional intelligence simply from their life experience. In addition, it found that the popular belief that wisdom comes with age is overstated.

“While a majority of older people are higher in EQ, there are many young people with higher EQ scores than their older counterparts,” it notes.

“In addition, some of the aspects of EQ can only be developed through training. So many of our social, educational, and business systems discount the contributions of young people,” according to the study. “If emotional intelligence is a critical competence in the current world context, then leaders need to take note of their younger people as an important source of human capital.”

The study examined three aspects of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, and self-direction. It found that:

  • Self-awareness increases slightly with age.
  • Self-management does not increase with age. It requires specific training to develop and is less likely to develop automatically through life experience.
  • Self-direction is more strongly affected by age, influencing empathy and the use of principles and values to drive a person’s behavior.

All this “suggests emotional intelligence is a developing ability” to which accumulated life experience likely contributes, researcher Lorenzo Fariselli of Six Seconds Italia said in a press release. Fariselli conducted the study analysis for Six Seconds.

However, some aspects of emotional intelligence are developed only through training, according to the findings.

“We often hear managers talk about the ‘generation gap,’ complaining that young employees are not motivated or service-oriented,” Joshua Freedman, author and Six Seconds director of programs told HR News in an e-mail.

“Our study does not support this perception-the younger people in the study score just as high on intrinsic motivation and optimism, two competencies key to being motivated and proactive. So if managers are perceiving a generation gap, the source may not be competence-it may be fit and communication style.”

He added that “while there are several competencies that increase with age, there are some that do not. This means companies must create training if they want people to develop the self-management aspects of emotional intelligence-they can’t rely on more senior people to develop these strengths simply through experience.”

In a speech at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 37th Annual Employment Management Association Conference and Exposition in March 2006, psychologist and author Goleman noted that emotional intelligence is twice as important in star performers as is cognitive ability.

There are plans for a future Six Seconds study to repeat the research using a larger sample, checking how different demographics, such as job role and education level, work with age to affect emotional intelligence in different ways.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at [email protected]

Related article:
Emotional Intelligence: Our Most Versatile Tool for Success, SHRM White Paper, September 2005.

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