Good Impressions

Students run the Beaver Emotional Intelligence Project, a five-year effort to understand the basis for judging personality and behavior. Top, Jordan Clark; middle, Jill Brown; bottom, Joshua Landin. (Photos: Frank Miller)
Students run the Beaver Emotional Intelligence Project, a five-year effort to understand the basis for judging personality and behavior. Top, Jordan Clark; middle, Jill Brown; bottom, Joshua Landin. (Photos: Frank Miller)

Call it gut instinct, intuition, street smarts or sixth sense. Good poker players need it. Success in business, politics and athletics demands it. Psychologists call it emotional intelligence, but unlike the myriad tests available to assess verbal and quantitative intelligence, a well-validated test for emotional intelligence has yet to be established, according to Frank Bernieri, an associate professor in the Oregon State University Department of Psychology.

For the last five years, Bernieri has led the Beaver Emotional Intelligence Project, which is identifying the basic components of emotional intelligence and attempting to validate the tests that measure them. What makes this project unusual in the behavioral sciences is that it is run almost exclusively by undergraduates. For 10 weeks, research subjects socialize, take personality tests and get videotaped in interpersonal activities (e.g., acting, working, deceiving) that reveal their skills in both reading others and influencing them. Groups eat together, clean together, have debates and play games. The idea is to simulate all the important things we do with others that enable us to know them. And over the course of the term, they fill out personality scales about themselves and make judgments about the other members of their group.

“It’s a really cool, unique experience,” says OSU master’s student Jill Brown, who worked with Bernieri to direct the project as an undergraduate. She and two undergrads — Jordan Clark and Joshua Landin — manage a team of 13 students who schedule activities, collect data and keep their peers on track.

Nature or Nurture?

Emotional intelligence can be viewed as either an inherent personality trait or as something you can develop, Brown says. “It’s like extroversion. It can be something you have, that is stable and inherent. Or it’s something you can develop, like math ability.

“Some people are good at regulating their emotions, and some people aren’t,” she adds. “Can you use them? Can you manage them? Can you perceive emotions in others?”

Unpublished results from the project don’t settle those questions yet, but they do show that people are better at detecting some personality traits than others. It turns out, for example, that people can see whether a stranger is an introvert or extrovert just by looking at them. However, it takes a full 10 weeks of working, socializing and traveling with someone before people can accurately determine how nice they are. This project will enable researchers to figure out precisely when, where and how people discover these traits in others, and whether some are doomed to always be fooled.

True Colors

Brown is working with Bernieri to prepare the first paper to emerge from the project while Clark and Landin are pursuing their own related projects. Clark, a senior from Medford, Oregon, is taking a look at a trait known as “self-monitoring.”

“Self-monitoring means one is motivated to create a good impression. So if you’re at a job interview, you might try to hold back a burp or something,” he says. “In other words, high self-monitors are skilled at hiding their true colors, whereas a low self monitor who is not a nice person will be exposed right away.”

Current theory assumes that each of us self-monitors (or not) chronically, whether in a job interview or out for a drink with friends. However, Clark believes that emotionally intelligent individuals self-monitor only when they need to and otherwise let their hair down. “That hasn’t been looked at before. It’s contrary to 40 years of research on this topic,” he says.

Meanwhile, Landin, a senior raised in Walla Walla, Washington, is evaluating a highly marketed test of emotional intelligence known as the MSCEIT (pronounced “mesquite”). He is seeing how well it predicts how accurately people can decode the nonverbal behavior and emotions of others. “Amazingly, the publishers of emotional intelligence tests haven’t actually checked to make sure that their tests predict how well people can do this,” says Bernieri.

“Our weekly lab meetings are a sight to behold,” he adds. “Imagine 13 undergraduates crammed into a conference room listening to one of their peers present research results and/or a proposal for a paper that is derived from the data set we are generating. It’s pretty cool.”